Monday, August 27, 2018

The Sister Lintou Story (Taiwan)

This is an early version of the classic old Taiwanese ghost story, the later subject of movies, TV series,  and street operas. It is arguably the single most famous ghost story out of Taiwan. 

The story was said to have taken place during the latter years of the Qing (1644-1911). The location of the story was Lintou Quarter, Tainan City, where the old Tainan City Railway Station is located and where there stood some trees of that name.

She was a young widow by the name of Li Zhaoniang, and she had two small children. Her husband, a merchant, had perished when the ship he was on capsized in the Taiwan Straits. She was now left with a sizable fortune, so neither her children nor she herself was in any danger of starving.

Now into her life came her late husband's friend, Zhou Yasi, a camphor and sugar merchant originally Shantou, Guangdong, to offer friendship and support. In time, however, this friendship blossomed into a full romance, with Li Zhaoniang's falling hard for Zhou. These were very conservative times, and society was scornful of any kind of relationship between a single man and a widow. Both Li and Zhou decided to wait a respectful period to marry, which they eventually did, with Zhou pledging to Li never to abandon her.

Zhou Yasi now had effective control of Li Zhaoniang's money inherited from her late husband.

Zhou, having made a fortune by selling and shipping camphor and sugar to Hong Kong and claiming he needed money for an upcoming deal, absconded with virtually all of the widow's money and relocated across the Taiwan Strait to his hometown. There, he soon remarried and started a family.

Li Zhaoniang and her children were left behind, destitute and without any recourse. Soon, she was totally alone after her two children had died from cold and hunger.

So, one night, she stole away to one of the lintou trees in the area and, wrapping a cord from a high branch, took her own life.

In time, she became known as "Sister Lintou," the ghost that appeared amidst the lintou trees after sundown. People then began to avoid this section of old Tainan after dusk.

The story is told that one man, an opium addict, whose desire to fund his habit was greater than his fear of ghosts, went to peddle his bachaan, meat-and-rice cakes wrapped in leaves, in the district.

"Bachaan! Bachaan!" he cried in the mostly deserted area.

"I'll buy some!" a voice whispered from the nearby grove of lintou trees.

The peddler looked around and saw a thin woman with long hair approach him.

She told him the number of bachaan she wanted and paid the peddler in bills.

Great! he thought. I can get back to my pipe now. 

The woman was now gone. The peddler looked down at the money in his hand, except it wasn't actual money. They were "hell notes," paper money with tin foil embossed in the center, used solely to burn as offerings for the dead . . .

And so, Sister Lintou continued to haunt the area after dark in her thin white robes, with long disheveled hair and red eyes glaring, her cries piercing the night, her whispers from dark corners chilling all who heard them. The quarter remained deserted after sundown.

It is said that local people began to set up shrines and to make offerings to the ghost that plagued the area, to make it once again inhabitable. For this reason, the haunting eventually came to an end.

Shiyi Books Editing team, eds., 台灣民間故事 [Taiwanese Folktales]; Tainan: Shiyi Books, 1983; pp. 183-193; Sun Yiwang, ed., pp. 105-130 (see 3/1/18 for full citation); Lin Meirong, 台灣鬼仔古 [Taiwanese Ghosts]; New Taipei: Yuexiong, 2017; pp. 246-247; He Jingyao, 妖怪台灣 [Yokai Taiwan]; New Taipei: Linking, 2017; pp. 172-174. 

The story takes its name after the lintou tree (林投; Pandanus tectorius) which grows all around the Pacific. The tree and its leaves have various uses. In old Taiwan, the leaves were used as toilet paper. Today, due to the story, the lin tou tree is closely associated with tragedies that befall women, like Li Zhaoniang, who, in a Chinese play of words, "threw" (投) herself "from the tree" (林 or "forest"; by extension, "tree").

There is no mention of Li Zhaoniang's own parents or her late husband's, people who would presumably have helped the widow and her children. Some sources report Li Zhaoniang as having three children. 

The episode of the food hawker receiving money instantly transformed to that for the dead would have been considered extremely shocking since that "money" is only used in connection with funeral rites and would not be something anyone would normally dream of handling. Anything like that which smacks of death would be avoided so as not to court the very thing most feared.  

The above is only one version of the story, perhaps one of the earliest, if not the actual oldest version. Later adaptations, for film and the one for the folktale anthology from Shiyi geared for adolescents, contain a very grisly and heartless ending. In these versions, the woman who was later to become a ghost was married to a soldier who had secretly left her to go back to his other wife or a later wife on the mainland once his term of service was up. Either a yamen runner or a temple psychic takes pity on the ghost and volunteers to enable her to carry out her vengeance on the man who had dallied with her affections and who had ultimately abandoned her. He decides to journey across the Taiwan Strait to the man's hometown on the mainland, where the ex-soldier (or Zhou Yasi) has a household with young children from this other wife. The ghost indicates where her ally may find some money for traveling expenses. She joins him on the trip by housing herself in a rolled-up umbrella or parasol. Once the bigamous, deadbeat husband has been located, the ally contrives to leave the umbrella at this man's house. Then, on a special occasion like a newborn's first-month celebration, the ghost leaves the umbrella and appears before the husband who had abandoned her, scaring him to the point where he goes insane. (It is suggested that the ghost possesses him.)  In any case,  he takes a kitchen knife and then slaughters his current wife and their children before committing suicide.

Motifs: E293, "Ghost frightens people deliberately"; E411.1.1, "Suicide cannot rest in grave"; E425.1.1, "Revenant as lady in white"; K2232.1, "Treacherous lover betrays woman's love and deserts her"; S62, "Cruel husband"; cS144.1, "Abandonment alone on foreign coast."

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