Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weird & Eerie Stories From Old China

Not ghost stories--I already have an ongoing series of such stories--but rather the first of what might hopefully be a collection of tales dealing with anomalies other than ghosts.

(1) Thirteen Cats
Imperial Censor Wang of Jiangning, Jiangsu, once had a concubine who, when she was seventy years of age, had thirteen cats. She loved those cats and took care of them as if they were her own children. She gave each one a name, and whenever she called one by its name, it would immediately come to her. In the forty-sixth year of the Qianlong Emperor (A.D. 1781), this woman died. The thirteen cats sat around her casket morning, day and night, unceasingly moaning. When offered fish to eat, the cats continued to cry and refused to touch the food. On the third day after the old woman's death, the thirteen cats, still surrounding the casket, were all found dead.


Zi bu yu (Matters the Master [Confucius] Did Not Discuss) by Yuan Mei (1716-1798); in Lingyi guaitan, p. 172. (See 7/8/10 for full citation.)

Yuan Mei derived the title for his book from a statement by Confucius: "I do not discuss weird abilities or contemptible spirits." Confucius's words reflect the ultra-Confucian attitude of aloofness from the incorporeal world.

(2) The Daughter of Xiang Shui
There once was a man named Xiang Shui who lived in Henai (now in Henan Province). When he was living in Wu Xing Qun (?), his wife gave birth to a girl. When the girl was a toddler, she came down with an illness. While she was sick at home with nothing to do, this child came across a small knife and started playing with it. Her mother saw her holding a knife and went to take it from her. Doing so, the mother accidentally nicked her own hand. After this incident, the poor child, now very ill, died.
A year passed. Xiang's wife had now given birth to another girl.

When this girl was four years old, she suddenly said to her mother, " Whatever happened to that small knife?"
"What knife, my daughter?"

"You know, the small knife you you took from me, the one I cut you with . . . "

As one can imagine, the mother was dumbstruck. Neither she nor her husband had ever talked about the now deceased daughter's playing with a knife and accidentally cutting her mother's hand. She went to tell Xiang Shui.

"Well," said Xiang Shui, " where exactly is that knife? Do we still have it?"

"Ever since the day our first daughter left us," replied the wife, "I've not used that knife. It breaks my heart just to think of the knife, for it reminds me of her. I put the knife away."

"Do this. Find that knife and put it amongst a bunch of similar knives. See if our daughter can spot the one you think she was talking about."

The mother did exactly this--she placed a number of small knives, including the small knife in question, before her daughter. In no time the small child gleefully picked up the small knife her late sister had played with four years before, the same knife which had cut the mother's hand.


Taiping guangji (The Comprehensive Records of Peace and Tranquility) by Li Fang (925-997 A.D.); in Lingyi guaitan, p. 101.

Throughout the world, down through the centuries and in many if not most cultures, there have been frequent reports of small children blurting out details of a supposed previous existence of which they could not have possibly known. For another story of reincarnation, see 6/14/10. The case of Shanta Devi and the research done by Dr. Ian Stevenson come to my mind after reading this story of suggested reincarnation from ancient China.

(3) Sometimes We Must Look to the Past

In the state of Pei (now Anhui Province), there lived a scholar and his wife. He and his wife had been blessed by their having triplets, boys. However, though each son was normal in every respect, none of them could enunciate normal speech. All they could do was to grunt unintelligible sounds.

By the time they reached the age of twenty, their condition remained the same. And so the three, along with their parents, were much disheartened. But what could they do?

Now one day, a well-meaning stranger happened to pass their house while the three boys and their father were out in the front. The stranger slowed down as he heard the garbled, incoherent mutterings of the three young brothers.

Turning to the embarrassed-looking father, the stranger asked, "What is this sound?"

"My sons. They are unable to speak."

"Oh?" asked the stranger. "Have you ever asked yourself if you had a role in why these fine young gentlemen should be unable to speak?"

The father looked at the stranger and seemed lost in thought for a long time. Finally, he replied, "When I was a boy, there was a swallow's nest just outside my bedroom window. In the nest were three young baby swallows. Their mother would fly over to the nest to feed each one. I can still remember seeing how each one would raise its beak and open it to receive the food.

"I was young, naughty and immature at the time. I took three short rose stems, with thorns and all, and climbed up to the nest. I then dangled a stem before each baby bird. When it opened its beak, I shoved the stem down its throat, killing it. I did this to each bird. How I regret doing that! "

The stranger nodded. "That's it" was all he said.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the three young men began conversing with each other for the first time in normal, articulate speech.

Thus, sometimes we must look to the past for an explanation to a current problem!


from Soushen ji by Gan Bao; in Lingyi guaitan; p. 10.

A Buddhist proverb teaches us that "if you wish to know why you are the way you are now, look to the past; if you wish to know how you shall be in the future, examine the way you are now." This karma may also reflect how the sins of the father, so to speak, can impact an otherwise blameless child.

May we all be so fortunate as to have well-meaning strangers enter our lives.

(4) The Secret of the Snake

There once was a scholar who had become an official. In some distant field, somewhere in the "two Guangs" (Guangdong and Guangxi provinces), he came across a huge peaceable snake, its girth nearly one chi (approx. 1/3 of a meter). He stood away, just observing it. It eventually crawled up a tree, and, to the amazement of the official, it began to devour all the leaves on the tree. Once all the leaves were gone, the circumference of the snake gradually but perceptibly grew smaller and smaller until at last the reptile had totally vanished!

A nearby local explained to him that the snake had probably eaten a whole deer earlier and was unable to digest the meal. So, in order to do so, it ate all the leaves in the tree.

The official decided to experiment. He picked as many leaves as he could and carried them back to his quarters. There, he kept the leaves, awaiting the perfect time to begin his research.

One night, when he felt particularly sated by food and drink, he decided he would do what the snake had done. He mashed the leaves with water, brewed a huge pot of soup with the ingredients, and drank all of it down.

The next day, when the official hadn't come down, his family members went up to look in on him. He was not in his bed. Someone pulled his bed cover back, revealing a collection of white bones and the rest, mostly tissue which had dissolved into water.


from Wen qi lu (Record of strange things heard) by Yu Ti (?); in Zhongguo qitan, pp. 19-19. (See 3/26/09 for complete citation.)

For another tale about a snake with a huge appetite, see 6/13/07.

(5) Fate

Long before he had ever made a name for himself, Zhang Jiazhen had time to kill one day and stopped by an old fortuneteller who had "set up shop" by a busy road. The old man consulted his various charts and devices and wrote up a number of different forecasts for Zhang, sealing each one in a separate envelope.

"Don't open them all up at once," the old man said. "They're numbered. Open each one in order just before you're given a new post or assignment." He then handed Zhang all the envelopes.

So each time Zhang was ready to leave a current post, he'd open an envelope to see what was in store just before the very next time he was posted or given an assignment. Amazingly, the old man's predictions were all completely accurate. Each sealed prediction foretold a post more prestigious than the current one.

Then came a glorious job assignment that had likewise been foretold: prefect of Dingzhou, Hebei Province! What office could be higher? Yet there was one envelope left. That was forgotten in his taking office in Dingzhou.

Not long after becoming prefect, Zhang Jiazhen came down with an illness. His family members became quite anxious and urged him to go see a physician.

"Ah, think nothing of it!" said Zhang. "I'm fine and going to stay fine. I have one yet envelope to open before I retire, don't you remember? Well, seeing as how you are all worried, I'll go ahead and open the envelope now, though it's a bit early to do so."

There, standing before his loved ones, he opened the final envelope. He took out the paper. Upon it was written just one character, "kong" (i.e., "empty," "blank," etc.).

He then knew that he was at the end of the road. He died shortly after.


from Dingming lu (Records of Determined Fates) by Zhao Zidong (?); in Zhongguo qitan, pp. 42-43.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Three Contemporary Chinese Fables

(1) The Master Builder

A master builder had worked many years building houses for his employee, Mr. Li. He and his wife had talked about his retiring one day, so today he would notify Mr. Li that he would no longer be working for him or for anyone else, for that matter."

"Oh, Shifu (i.e., master, maestro), you can't be serious?" asked Mr. Li. "Is there any way I convince you to stay on, at least for one more project?"

"No, Mr. Li, my mind's made up. I've worked for you for many years, and, while I appreciate working for you and the good salary you've paid me, the time has come for me to retire. I now want to spend more time with my wife and grandchildren."

"Listen, I have just one more project coming up for you, and I really need your help! This house will be the biggest, grandest, most opulent house of all, built with only the finest redwood and marble. How could I possibly have it constructed with anyone else but you overseeing the job? Please, Shifu, don't desert me at this time!"

"Well . . . "

"No, I must really beg you to reconsider!"

The master builder sighed. "Well, all right . . . but just this one house and that's it!"

"Thank you, Shifu!"

The master builder went home to tell his wife that he would work on yet one more construction project for Mr. Li, a house which when completed would be a masterpiece.

"Oh, you foolish man!" his wife said. "You're such a walkover for others. Since you agreed, just quickly get the thing done."

"But it is to be built with the finest of materials . . . "

"Who cares! Just hurry up and build it!"

So the master builder got started on this new job which was to be his last, and, yes, he had his crew do a rather slapdash job. He was more interested in getting the job done than in doing the job well. The result--a house with many shortcomings, most of which were not immediately noticeable.

When the house was completed, Mr. Li showed up, bearing a piece of paper and some keys, which he thrust into the hands of the startled master builder.

"What's . . . all . . . this, Mr. Li?" the master builder asked.

"Surprise! These are the deed and keys to your house, Shifu! This is my gift to you and your wife upon your retirement and for your many, many years of exemplary work. May you live for many years in total comfort in this house you yourself have built!"

(2) Dogfight

A young hoodlum swaggered through a neighborhood with a large dog he had trained to be vicious. If he encountered anyone taking a dog for a walk, he'd challenge the other dog owner to let both their animals fight.

Of course one look at his snarling and snapping dog was enough to make others turn around with their own dogs and head quickly away.

So this young thug strutted through the neighborhood, acting as if he owned the place, intimidating others into keeping their dogs indoors.

Now one day he walked his dog over to a park on the edge of the neighborhood. There, he saw an old man and his dog up on a knoll, sitting under a tree. The dog under the tree was the ugliest, weirdest-looking mutt he had ever seen, with a very thick snout, surely no match for his own killer dog.

"Hey, you!" the young hoodlum cried.

The old man looked up.

"Yeah, you! Let your dog and mine fight and see which is tougher. I'll wager you my dog'll rip yours apart!"

"Let them fight, eh?"

"Yeah! C'mon!"

The old man scratched his scrawny beard. He looked at the young tough's dog, then at his own pet, and then back at the young man.

"Very well, if you want . . ."

He untied the leash from the collar of his dog as the young hoodlum did the same. Then the old man gently pushed his dog in the direction of the snarling dog now bounding up the knoll towards them.

The strange-looking dog and the hoodlum's dog crashed into each other.

It was all over in a matter of seconds.

It wasn't even close.

The young hoodlum's vicious dog had been shredded, ripped apart to its very bones. What remained of the poor dog lay in a sickening, bloody heap.

The hoodlum was shaken and dumbstruck. "Wha- . . . Wha- . . . What happened? Your dog . . . what kind of dog is that?"

The old man just shook his head as his animal came back to him and allowed itself to have its leash reattached to its collar. "I guess I can't blame you for not knowing, seeing as how I have his fur all shaved off. He's actually what you call a 'lion.' That might answer your question."

(3) Old Wang and Old Chen

Old Wang and old Chen were two neighbors in adjoining apartment units. Now the Wangs were a noisy lot, always quarreling late into the night, while the Chens were very quiet, with nary a peep ever coming from out of the walls.

None of this was lost on old Wang, who was very embarrassed at how noisily he and his wife argued. He desperately wanted to apologize to old Chen but could never seem to find the chance.

One day he spotted old Chen waiting at the elevator. He jumped at the chance to make amends and rushed to join him while waiting for the elevator car to appear.

"Mr. Chen, my old friend, I really have to apologize for the way my wife and I argue! I know we must be very noisy and have probably kept you and Mrs. Chen up late on more than one occasion. We ought to be like you and Mrs. Chen--as quiet as the grass!"

"Don't worry about it, my friend," said old Chen. "All that arguing you and your wife do only proves one thing."

"What's that?"

"That you two are good people!"

"What?! Don't you mean that you and your wife are good people?"

"No, we're not good people; we're bad."

"Oh? How so?" Now Mr. Wang was mystified.

"Well," said Chen, "it's like this. What did you say the other day when your wife sat down on your reading glasses? 'What are you, woman, blind?'" Old Wang had to wince at that. "Then," continued Chen, "what did your wife say when you spilled tea all over the carpet? 'You clumsy old fool! Are your hands made of rubber?' Do you remember that?"

"Yes," said Wang, "of course I do."

"You must both be good people because each time you scold each other, which you both frequently do, you do so as the hero, while the other is the villain, the bad person!"

"Oh . . . "

"Now my wife and I, " continued Chen, sighing, "on the other hand must be bad! We're both constantly apologizing to each other for the slightest thing! And we do many, many bad things! Why, just this morning, my wife said she was sorry for accidentally shrinking my favorite shirt in the laundry! I quickly forgave her with a smile, of course. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had to apologize because I had forgotten to bring in the laundry! Whew, I shudder when I think about how rotten my wife and I really are!"

"Ah . . . I see . . . "

"Oh," said Mr. Chen, "the elevator's finally here. Oh, my goodness! I'm awfully sorry! After you, please!"


Special thanks to my mentors and dear friends Sue Lau, Sally Zhang, and Joseph Tu for relating these examples of modern Chinese tales to me. For more examples of contemporary Chinese legends, this time, ghost stories, see 6/15/07.