Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series Six

(1) Old Li Chiu

In Northern Liang, there lived a man known as Old Li Chiu.

One night, Old Li, somewhat tipsy, returned home from town. He was accompanied by a shapeshifting ghost which had gleefully impersonated Old Li's nephew all the way back to the old gentleman's residence. En route back home, the ghost constantly berated Old Li for having drunk over his limit, much to the latter's indignation.

Once home and once the effects of alcohol had worn off, Old Li summoned his nephew, scolding him, saying, "I'm like a father to you! I'd expect you to be more loving towards me! How dare you lecture me about having drunk too much on the way home last night!"

The nephew, tears in his eyes, knelt before his uncle, and said, "There's been a huge mistake, Uncle! I didn't do that! I wasn't even with you. Last night, I was in town requesting the repayment of a debt. You can go ask the debtor if you wish!"

"Ha," said Old Li, "now I know what happened! Some ghost attached himself to me on my way home last night.Yes, I've heard of such occurrences before."

The next night found Old Li inebriated once again in town. He was armed this time, determined to kill any ghost that dared to bother him.

When Old Li's nephew, fearful for his uncle's safety arrived to escort the old man home, Old Li assumed the young man was the ghost reappearing to harass or menace him. Old Li then took out his sword and cut down the young man, his actual nephew, thinking he had successfully dealt with the annoying shape-shifting ghost.


"Li qiu zhangren" by Lu Buwei in Guihua [Talks on ghosts], Li Mengsheng, ed. Shanghai: Shanghai Shiji Chubanshe, 2010;  p. 1.

This story, from the Age of Warring States (475-221 B.C.)  is one of the oldest--maybe the oldest--in which the Chinese character for "ghost" ÚČ╝ appears. Previously, I had thought "The Tale of Uncle Ju" (see 3/26/09) held that spot. This tale, however, predates "The Tale of Uncle Ju" by at least several hundred years and seems to be in terms of theme and plot the clear forerunner of "Uncle Ju."  Perhaps not coincidentally, Li Mengsheng, in his survey of old Chinese ghost stories through the centuries, placed "Li qiu zhangren" as the first story in his anthology. The characters in this story, like those in the later variant "The Tale of Uncle Ju," live in an age when "ghost," "demon," and "vampire" seem undifferentiated and when a "ghost" may yet be "killed."   

Motifs: D42.2; "Spirit takes man's shape"; E332.2, "Ghost(s) seen on road at night."

(2) The White Bones

A certain Mr. Liu, over sixty years of age, a native of Heshuo (an area north of the Yellow River), was returning from visiting Shangfeng Temple (in Hunan Province) when he got caught in a downpour. It was getting dark, and he quickly needed to take shelter.

By the road he spotted a large tomb mound. There was an entrance, so he went in and fell asleep until the rain stopped.

When he awoke, he saw the entire interior of the tomb was completely illuminated by the moonlight which had crept in. The spotlessly clean glazed tiles of the tomb shone brightly.

And then, there, on the other side of the tomb floor from him,  Liu saw a skeleton--a complete set of bones from head to foot. Nothing else was there but Liu and the skeleton.

Liu slowly rose to his feet.

As he rose, so did the skeleton.

Then, the skeleton ran pell-mell towards him and embraced him. Liu exerted every ounce of energy he had to free himself from the skeleton, and finally he broke free, causing the decayed bones to fall apart onto the floor in a pile.

Liu fled the tomb. He told everyone he encountered about his adventure.

Such an occurrence is not at all that strange, he was told.

from "Bai gu" by Guo Yu; Guihua, p. 39. 

From the Song Dynasty (960-1229 AD).

What Liu did would have been unthinkable according to traditional culture. It would have been considered extremely bold and foolhardy at best and suicidal at worst. However, since there are characters like Liu, rash people who "push the envelope," we can thus have ghost stories, the results of their heedless actions--related by the very protagonist if he/she survives. No wonder he was told that "such an occurrence is not at  all that strange"! What had he been thinking?

Motif: E422.1.11.4, "Revenant as skeleton."

(3) Ghosts Don't Torment the Poor!

Luo Liangfeng, a man of Yangzhou, Jiangsu, spoke of how he could see ghosts.

He said he could see ghosts at sundown, when the streets would be absolutely full of these entities that are much shorter than the living. There they would be on streets, avenues and boulevards, their facial features blurred, congregating so that they would resemble a black shadow cast over everything. So many of them would be on the street that they would walk into and out from the walls along the way. Like living people, many of them would be observed chatting while walking along, while others would walk along without any visible emotion, and while still others might  find a living human to walk behind and to follow that person to wherever he or she may go.

These and other ghosts, according to Luo, always enjoy the noisy, bustling, popular spots favored by people, thinking apparently, in their ghostly way, that wherever there is a popular gathering place, there shall one find people, not so much, though, in the empty grasslands of shepherds.

No wonder scholar Yang Xiong (53 BC-18 AD) wrote, "Ghosts always peep on what the affluent are doing."

In actuality, humans and ghosts belong to different realms but must share the same physical space. Ghosts normally don't pose humans any harm unless they, the ghosts, are out for vengeance or just in the mood to do some haunting. Consequently, it is usually very difficult for a person to see a ghost.

Since most ghosts enjoy frequenting busy, prosperous areas and since most are unable to change their habits, they tend to stay away from the shabby, depressed locations visited by the poor. This is why we have the old saying "Poor ghosts don't drop in [for a visit]." How true.

from Zi bu yu in Gao shenme gui, Yuan Mei, ed. Annotated by Wang Yuan. Taipei: Guanxue She, 2004; pp. 8-9. 

Zi bu yu [What the Master (i.e., Confucius) did not discuss] is the ghost story collection of Qing Dynasty writer Yuan Mei (1716-1797 AD). "Poor ghosts" is a play on words, meaning either literally poor, possibly "hungry" ghosts or people who are impoverished. Of course, the conclusion reached by Yuan Mei, that ghosts prefer to flock near the prosperous and seldom ever go near those who are poor, is debatable. 

The description of ghosts on the street reminded me of a story in Zhongguo yaoguai shidian [Dictionary of Chinese goblins] by famed Japanese artist and chronicler of the bizarre, Mizuki Shigeru (Taipei: Zhenxing, 2004). That story is "Gui shi" ["Ghost market"]. The gist of that story is as follows: 

    A servant was on an errand away from town. Since the daytime weather had been 
   unbearably hot, the servant decided to travel at night. One midnight, while still on the road,
   the servant stumbled into a very bustling, humming marketplace crammed full of people buying
   food from stalls. Hungry, he bought a bowl of soup noodles, devoured it, and continued on his 
   journey. He completed his task and made it back home, whereupon he came down with a sickness.
   He vomited up a toad and coiled worms . . .  (pp. 42-43). 

Such is what happens when one, in traditional thought, interacts with ghosts. The servant had more than likely stopped by a ghost market in a desolate area of tombs where spirits appear and recreate the world they had known when they were alive, using the spirit money that had been burned for them to buy whatever is available in their realm. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chunwang & the Ninth Maiden (Han) -- Part Three

As the Ninth Maiden wept, she heard a man's voice singing from the bushes:

"There go the Maidens flying back up into the heavens!
And I? I've taken the peahen skin and wings of one of them.
I'm ready to return them to her without much fuss.
All I ask is for one thing in return--for her to call me her one and only."

From out of the bushes stepped Chunwang, bearing the skin and wings.

What a handsome young man, thought the Ninth Maiden. Who would have thought such a handsome one existed among the mortals! She liked what she saw, laughed bashfully and sang back:

"Young man, if you say you love me, you'll need to love me with all your heart.
Otherwise, I don't care if I died--I still wouldn't call you my man.
If you truly love me, then, please hurry and give me back my skin and wings!"

Chunwang promptly returned the skin and wings to the Ninth Maiden. Right then and there, from that day forward, they became man and wife. How happy were they? There's no need to ask--they felt pure joy being in each other's presence and nothing else in the world mattered.

Nine months later, the wife and husband had a pair of twins--a boy and a girl--both soft and chubby with creamy complexions, as cute as children can be.

It was now a full year since Ninth Maiden had come down to earth for good and married Chunwang.

One day Chunwang noticed her carrying a beautiful large hulu, a gourd shaped like our number eight ("8"), from out of their garden.

"And what do you plan to do with the hulu, my wife?" he asked.

"Today's my father's birthday," she replied. "I'm presenting it to him. That means I'll need to return to the sky.  But don't worry. I'll be back before dark, so watch the children for me while I'm gone!"

"Very well."

Ninth Maiden stepped upon the hulu leaf and flew away up into the sky and out of sight.

Well, night came but Ninth Maiden had still not returned. Nor did she return by the next morning, or the morning after that.

from Tan Daxian, pp. 60-61. 

The story in the original Chinese doesn't reconcile Ninth Maiden's earlier temporary loss of her bird skin and wings and resultant lack of ability to fly with her human guise and capability of flying away on a leaf. Nor does it suggest that once married, she remains donned in her peahen skin and wings outfit.

The hulu gourd, gourd bottle, or bottle-gourd is a Taoist (Daoist) alchemy symbol, sometimes seen depicted on the windows and walls of Chinese herbalist shops. In ancient times, Taoist adepts were thought to carry medicine or magic potions in their hulu gourds. In Taiwan, a modern expression goes like this: "What's inside your hulu?" In other words, "What are you up to?"

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Midnight Bus -- an Urban Legend From Beijing

A young man and an old man, strangers to each other, got on Bus 302, the midnight bus. The old man took a seat near the front, and the young man, a seat a few rows behind. Two other passengers sat in the front close to the driver.

Shortly after the bus left the stop, the old man turned around to face the young man in the back.

"What did you just say?" asked the old man.

"I didn't say anything," the young man replied.

"Yes, you did. I heard you. Don't lie. You said something about me."

"Excuse me but I didn't say anything to you or anyone else."

"Oh, now you're suggesting I'm lying or that I am hearing things. Is that it?" The old man's face was furious.

"I didn't say anything to you! Don't bother me!"

"Why, you little disrespectful . . . I ought to . . . !"

The old man got up and marched back to the young man and boxed his ears.

"Hey . . . !" yelled the young man.

At this point, the bus driver pulled over to the curb, put the parking brake on, turned around and said, "All right, both of you get off my bus! I'm not having any fighting while I'm driving!"

"But--" the young man began.

"Get off now! You heard me!"

The young man, followed by the old man, exited the bus. The bus took off, leaving the two alone on a deserted street when night is at its blackest.

"What the hell was that all about?" the young man asked the old man. "Why in the world did you start a stupid quarrel with me? Why did you hit me?"

The old man smiled and shook his head. "I just saved your life and mine."

"What do you mean?"

"Did you see the two passengers in the front?"

"Yes . . . well, not clearly. I know there were two people with their backs turned. So what?"

"Well," the old man continued, "I happened to see them more clearly than you did.  Below their waists there was nothing there."

"So . . . they . . . were . . . ?"

"Yes," said the old man, nodding. "Exactly."

The news media reported the next day that Bus 302 had disappeared some time after midnight. No trace of it or anyone on the bus was ever found.


For another version of this urban legend, please see the posting for 3/18/18.

I just heard this story told in English by my very good friend Professor Li Yang of Qingdao, Shandong, China, an expert on Chinese urban legends. This story is now making the rounds in China. His son Andre related another version in which at the very end, once the pair have been kicked off the bus, the old man tells the young man basically the same story, then adding that he, too, is a ghost, meaning, of course, the hapless young man is now in mortal danger. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chunwang & the Ninth Maiden (Han) -- Part Two

Chunwang now found himself the guest of the young hunter, Brother Deer. Brother Deer's family treated Chunwang with great courtesy and affection, feeding the young man plates of fish and meat and cups of rice wine with which to down the food. Brother Deer also took Chunwang along to pay respect to other members of the deer community.

Some time passed and Chunwang began to think of his mother. As much as he had enjoyed staying with Brother Deer and his family, Chunwang longed to return to his mother. And so, escorting Chunwang to the gates of his compound, Brother Deer handed Chunwang a basket and said, "Little Brother, take this parting gift. Don't look at it as just an ordinary basket. See what happens when you place freshly cut grass into the basket!"

With tears in his eyes, Chunwang accepted the gift and prepared to say farewell. However, Brother Deer had more words to say.

"Remember this: If you should ever encounter any problem and need my help," Brother Deer said, "don't hesitate to come this gate and shout: 'Maha! Brother Deer!' Do so and I shall immediately come!"

Chunwang returned home to his worried mother. He dutifully stayed by his aged mother's side for the next few days until it came time to cut the grass.

He was cutting the grass alone when he decided to use the basket Brother Deer had given him. As soon  he placed a few blades of grass into the basket, the entire basket became full of grass and the grass on the ground to cut became that much less. With the basket, Chunwang could now cut much more grass with much less effort! What a great boon this basket turned out to be!

In his free time, Chunwang kept in contact with Brother Deer and his family, often visiting their compound.

In his eighteenth year, Chunwang's mother passed away. He made the funeral arrangements and made sure they were carried out in a filial manner. Afterwards, he visited Brother Deer.

Brother Deer took one look at Chunwang and asked, "Little Brother, what happened? Your face looks so cloudy! You can tell me."

"Brother Deer, my mother has passed away, the person who had loved me and taken care of me since birth, the one person in my little home besides myself. Brother Deer, I shall not want to live alone . . ."

"Listen to me, my little brother. Don't be upset. I think I have the answer. Just about every evening, nine female immortals come down from the sky to the West River to bathe. Here's what you can you do. Hide yourself in the grass a hundred paces from the riverbank before they come down. Wait for them to take off their beautiful peahen skins and wings. You'll see that they are incredibly lovely maidens. Note which of the group is the one most beautiful. While they bathe, take the skin and wings of that maiden and hide it. She shall come out of the water and despair when she is unable to find her skin and wings. Meet her, introduce yourself, and return her skin and wings to her. She shall then become your wife! Now, leave quickly! You need to be somewhere!"

Chunwang thanked Brother Deer, grabbed a bite to eat,  and took off towards West River. Once there, he found a spot a hundred paces from the shore that was full of tall stalks of grass and hid himself there. Then, he watched and waited . . .

The dark grayness of early evening soon turned to the black of night punctuated by the brilliance of the silver stars overhead. Chunwang continued to watch and wait.

A star descended to earth!

Now gathered on the bank of the river were nine gorgeous peahens. One by one each discarded its skin and wings to reveal itself as a ravishing beauty. The last, the ninth, was the most beautiful of all, and she dazzled Chunwang's eyes.

Yes, she's the one, he said to himself.

The nine celestial maidens entered the river water and cavorted and splashed about, unaware of Chunwang's creeping over to pick up the skin and the wings of the ninth maiden. Grabbing the wings and skin, he slipped off to a safe location where the maiden's skin and wings could be safely hidden and never found. He quietly returned to the riverbank and once again hid himself in the tall grass.

Soon, the maidens finished bathing and left the water. One by one, each donned her skin and wings to return to peahen form--all except the Ninth Maiden, of course.

"Wait! Wait!" she cried. "Where are my skin and wings? Sisters, where are they? Have you seen them?"

One by one, her sisters flew away up into the sky.

The Ninth Maiden, without a stitch to conceal herself, covered her eyes and cried.


from Tan Daxian, pp. 58-59.