Friday, March 22, 2013

The Earth Demon, Yaksha (Han)

Our story occurred during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor (1875-1908) in Xinye, Henan Province. In Xinye there lived a prosperous jeweler, antique seller and craftsman, Lu Bancheng. Lu was extremely well-read in calligraphy and very enterprising, always scouting for valuable items. Not surprisingly, he took many business trips.

On one such trip, he was returning to Xinye from Hankou when the riverboat he was on made an emergency call to a river port due to some strong winds. However, the winds weren't strong enough to deter Lu from leaving the shelter of the berth to do some sightseeing. A temple by the river had caught his eye, and so that was where he headed.

Arriving at the gate, he discovered the temple was dilapidated and abandoned. There were weeds growing everywhere, and paint was peeling from the walls. Doors and windows were missing. Worst of all, the statue of Buddha was tilting. The whole place manifested a deep sense of gloom.

Then, Lu saw the painting.

A painting was still attached to one of the decayed walls. Lu looked at it. The painting style was definitely ancient and the style of the artist was somehow familiar to Lu, who had seen and had handled a great many such paintings in his time. The painting itself depicted Yakshas, demons or spirits from the bowels of the earth; a particularly hellish demon with a green face was wielding a bronze pitchfork.

Yes, I've seen this work before. Wu  . . . Wu Daozi . . ., thought Lu. This has got to be an original painting by Wu Daozi!

Lu had seen copies of this very same painting, with the original attributed to Tang Dynasty master muralist Wu Daozi, whose works by this time were now extremely rare. Who would have guessed that a painting by this giant of Tang art would be found in a run-down, abandoned temple? As such, it would fetch an enormous price . . .

Like a feverish madman but one still sane enough to be careful, Lu took out the artist's knife he always carried and gingerly used the blade to extract the painting from the wall. He carefully rolled it up and took it with him back to the boat.

Lu Bancheng was delighted with his find. He sat on the bow of the still-docked ship and ordered a warmed pot of wine and some food for himself to celebrate. There he sat, enjoying the wine, admiring the view, and reveling in his latest acquisition, one sure to bring him great riches!

He turned his head. Someone was on the dockside of the boat, looking at him and then at the food he was eating.

It was an unkempt, emaciated female beggar, whose lion mane of disheveled hair blew in the breeze.

Lu got up and beckoned to her. He approached the side of the boat, extended his arm and helped her aboard. He then handed her a plate of steamed buns, each of which she wolfed down. He also allowed her to eat the other food, which she did without bothering to use chopsticks.

Once she had finished eating, Lu asked her about herself, where she was from and so on.

She was a local, she told him, the daughter of a hog butcher. Her mother had died young; she and her father lived off the meat he didn't sell. Eventually, her father died, and she was then adopted into a household as a "little daughter-in-law," one who, once marriageable age had arrived, would marry the young man of the house. Things didn't work out so well, however. Since she was literally addicted to eating meat, she wouldn't touch any dish that didn't meat. Her adopted parents decided she was a burden, too expensive to raise as their future daughter-in-law. So, they turned her out. With nowhere else to go, she took refuge in the abandoned temple Lu had visited earlier that day and before long became a beggar.

Poor child, thought Lu. What if one day she runs into a vicious beast or a beast in human form? 

"Listen, young lady, " said Lu, "begging daily for a meal is no way to go through life. Why don't you work for me as one of my household staff? You'll have daily square meals and clothes to boot! You can have what others have, a home."


That was the sound of the beggar's head hitting the deck of the boat as she kowtowed before Lu out of deep  gratitude and joy. Lu gently helped her rise and escorted her into the cabin, where, before taking leave of her, he had someone provide her with a tub of water in which to bathe, a brush for her wild hair, and a change of clothes.

An hour or so later, someone knocked on the door of Lu's private cabin. He opened it to find a very enchanting servant girl carrying a tray with a teapot and cup. Exquisite eyes and lovely brows; brilliant white teeth and ruby lips; yes, she was gorgeous, indeed.

He stared at her. She was none other than the beggar!

He decided then and there to take her as his second wife, not as a household domestic.

Five days later, they were back in Xinye. Lu Bancheng immediately proceeded with the wedding plans. At the ceremony, all were impressed by the second Mrs. Lu's beauty. Lu himself couldn't get over his fortune and this new wife who had become his very precious darling, someone for whom he would spare no expense. 

All was well in the Lu house . . . for a while. 

The new Mrs. Lu had made many new fans with her grace and winsomeness. Yet, there was something decidedly odd about her. In all regards but one she was wonderful; when it came to eating meat, she was   a downright miserly glutton who demanded each plate of meat for herself. "Sharing" didn't seem to be a concept that she understood. 

She began to eat more and more meat, and as she did so, her personality underwent a change. Gone was all her humbleness. She now treated the household staff with oppressiveness and disdain, causing the servants to gnash their teeth in resentment as they went about their duties. 

The day came when Lu Bancheng wished to throw a lavish dinner party for clients. He had had more than twenty jin (more than ten kilograms) of pork cooked and placed in the kitchen on platters to await the guests. At midday, when the cook entered the kitchen to prepare the vegetables, he was astonished to find that the meat was gone, every slice of it.

Lu was called and he first suspected a member of the servant staff. He interviewed each one, and more than a few said the same thing--he or she had seen the new Mrs. Lu enter the kitchen alone sometime in the forenoon. 

Aha, he thought. But could she have actually consumed all that meat? 

The next day, Lu ordered half of an entire cooked hog brought into the kitchen. Lu then hid himself in a corner of his spacious kitchen. 

There, he waited . . .

Not long after, the "little beauty" tiptoed into the kitchen. The second Mrs. Lu then looked around and locked the kitchen door from the inside. Suddenly, her face and body underwent a transformation. Her hair turned red as her face turned a sickly green. Her eyes had become a baleful gold. With her hands, now long-nailed claws, she attacked the half hog lying on the pallet, ripping its flesh, stuffing the meat into her now bloody mouth and doing so over and over and over. 

Within minutes, the hog was gone; the pallet, as dry as a sun-bleached stone. 

Lu Bancheng watched the spectacle in horror and disgust, riveted to his hiding spot, too terrified to move. He watched the demon pat her gut in delight after finishing off half of a hog . It was a good while after she had left when he was able to get up and leave the kitchen. 

He went to his shop and gathered up ten of his stoutest, hardiest workers. He armed them with knives and guns.

"We're going to drive out and kill a demon," he informed them. 

He led his party back to his house, from where not only the demon had now fled but all of Lu's own family and servants as well. Lu had to dismiss the men and think of a plan to eradicate the demon he had brought into his own home. 

In town he sought the services of a Taoist priest who was reputed to be a very effective exorcist. 

For the next three days, the priest performed his rituals. While he did so, however, the demon went on a rampage as she searched for food. Not only pigs but sheep, cows and horses were being devoured alive.

After three days, the priest had to acknowledge all his efforts had been in vain. 

"This is a very powerful malevolent entity," he told Lu Bancheng, "one that has apparently invaded our community from somewhere else, one that has been honing its evil power for a thousand years. Thus, I'm afraid I don't have the ability to destroy it."

Reluctantly, Lu and the Taoist priest parted. 

Lu was at a loss about what to do. A powerful exorcist had no effect on a demon running amuck. What could he, Lu, possibly do to stop it? 

Then, it dawned on him. He had seen the face of the kitchen demon before--one of the faces of Yakshas on the temple painting he had brought home. He himself had brought this demon to his community. His willingness to steal a temple painting, a painting that had undoubtedly been placed in the temple to neutralize the power of these demons, had unleashed all this destruction. 

He ran into his house and into the room where he had hidden the temple painting. He grabbed the ancient, valuable work of art and headed outside. He went to a glazed well that had been built on the order of Han Emperor Guangwu (5 B.C.- 57 A.D.). The well was rumored to be bottomless. Without the slightest regret, he threw the painting down into the well. He next hired some workmen to drop a millstone down the well. For good measure, he had the well filled with earth.

The Yaksha, the second Mrs. Lu, was never seen again. 

Qianqi baiguaide minjian gushi, Wang Fan, ed.; pp. 276-278. (See 2/21/13 for full citation.) 

Wu Daozi (A.D. 680-759) was an actual artist.

This legend, the product of an earlier, less sensitive time, doesn't mention anything about the first Mrs. Lu. And like many legends, it has a cautionary tone not unlike urban legends of today, which, in many cases, are just updated versions of cautionary tales from the medieval ages or even earlier periods. The didactic message attached to the end of the tale warns young readers not to take anything without having earned it and that nothing good comes from ill-gotten gains. The demon's father had been a hog/pig butcher, an inauspicious occupation in a tale with an anti-meat eating subtext. Like today's urban legends, the story also suggests to beware of hurriedly befriending strangers of the opposite sex.

 Yaksa (夜叉) comes from Sanskrit, with a number of meanings: "ghost that can eat," "ghost that can bite," "ghost that swiftly brings disease," but also "light and quick," etc. In Hindu mythology, Yaksas are friendly, benign attendants to the gods. They are associated with the air, water or land. Once Buddhism entered China, however, the Yaksa became identified with ghosts or gui (鬼), in earlier eras that catchall phrase for any revenant or demon that hated the living and that devoured human flesh but despite its supernatural powers, could be destroyed by humans . Consuming flesh, in fact, became one of their chief characteristics.  

Motifs: D435.2.1, "Picture comes to life"; F402.4, "Demon eats ravenously"; F496, "Demon of gluttony"; G11.15, "Cannibal demon"; G81, "Unwitting marriage to cannibal"; and cH461, "Cannibal nature of woman recognized when she devours dead buffalo raw."  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Three Contemporary Ghost Stories From China

Note: The third story is not for children. 

(1) Tofu, Anyone?

High school had let out for winter break, so A. and his friend headed home on foot.

The night was black, dry, cold, and no one else was on the street. The empty streets coupled with the bone-chilling winter made the scene all rather bleak and eerie.

The pair had not gone far when they suddenly saw someone ahead, an old woman.

It was odd enough for an older citizen to be out alone on a deserted street in such cold weather, but that was the least of it. What was truly strange was her clothing: she seemed to be dressed in women's clothes fashionable during the final years of the Qing Dynasty (1890-1912). Her hair was tied tightly behind her head, and she was shouldering a bamboo pole, carrying a container, chanting, "Tofu for sale! Tofu for sale!"

It then dawned on A. that he had heard this woman's intermittent chants outside his dorm window at least once while studying, as if she had been walking a circuit around the campus, coming and going and then returning . . .

"Hey, you see her?" A. asked his friend more than once.

Instead of replying yes or no, the friend gripped A.'s shoulder, attempting to push him past her. Very briefly did A. look upon the old woman's face, but she did not return the glance, for which A. was thankful.

Both A. and his friend tried as nonchalantly as possible to walk by her, and both were very relieved to do so quickly.

A. later would concede that he couldn't say for sure that the old woman he saw that night was a ghost, but certain questions remained unanswered. Why would an aged person be in outlandish nineteenth century garb and out on chilly nights like that, selling tofu, of all things, at that hour, likely circling their school campus?

Upon returning home, A. promptly told his mother all about the woman selling tofu on cold, deserted streets. His mother later took him to a temple to pray before the bodhisattvas and had him drink down a concoction made from the ashes or powder of an amulet.

A. admitted he had gone along with whatever his mother had told him to do, for he had truly been scared out of his wits by the strange old costumed woman hawking tofu on a dark street late one night.

Meiwan yige zhenshide liqi gushi: xiaoyuan guishi [An intriguing true story for each night: bizarre occurrences on campus], Zilong Qichuan, ed. Beijing: Xinshijie, 2010; p. 12.

This story comes from an anthology of what the editor and contributors claim to be true high school and college/university campus ghost stories and eerie happenings. The Chinese original was told in first person, but I adapted the narrative for third person. 

A. was presumably enrolled in a boarding school. In any case, it is not explained why A. and his friend are making their way home alone on dark, deserted streets at night. We are told in an earlier section that the school is in Hubei. A. explains that his school had all the qualifications for being classified as a "haunted campus": (i) an ancient history (with roots going back to a private school in the Song Dynasty); (ii) a somewhat remote location; (iii) a large area or campus; (iv) old buildings; (v) an attached hospital; and (vi) a neighboring lake or pond (5). The original list was of five items, with "hospital" and "lake" inexplicably lumped together. 

(2) Midnight Taxi Ride

This story happened in some major urban area in China. Let's say Beijing.

Late at night, a taxi picked up a fare, a young woman in white gown, leaving a party.

She gave him an address and off they went.

He delivered her to her destination, a massive housing complex. Unknown to both him and her, the place where he stopped, on the passenger's side, was just mere inches from an open ditch, where, in the daylight, construction work had been going on. She paid her fare and left the taxi via the right rear passenger's door.

The young woman took a step back and lost her footing, falling into the ditch.


The startled driver turned around to catch a glimpse of her, white dress and hair billowing upwards, disappearing before his very eyes.

Oh . . . oh . . .! thought the driver, his heart no doubt racing. That's a ghost . . . Yes, that 's one of those ghosts! I just picked up and delivered a ghost . . . like in all those stories . . . 

While the driver was gathering his wits and feverishly analyzing what he believed he had just seen, the young woman had managed to claw her way back up, seemingly materializing by rising from the earth, this time, by the front passenger's door.

"Ohhh . . . help me . . . !" she moaned, more out of anger than injury, but moaning nonetheless.

"Ahhhhh!" screamed the driver, pulling away and driving off as fast as he could, leaving behind a very annoyed and perplexed woman but also, later, providing local and worldwide society with yet another true tale of an encounter with the mysterious vanishing passenger!

Okay, so now you know this is not a true ghost story! Professor Li Yang (surname Li), an acclaimed professor of folklore from Qingdao, China, told me this story while he was here  in the United States for his yearlong research work. Professor Li is a very modest man who claims not to be a good storyteller, but his telling of the story was a lot funnier than my version. He is, in fact, an excellent raconteur. Another one of his stories, "The Midnight Bus," can be found at 8/6/12.

(3) There you are!

This story supposedly happened in Ningde, in northeastern Fujian Province. It is supposed to be true.

A couple with a child fell on hard times and began to quarrel. As their economic problems worsened day after day, the arguments became more acrimonious. Soon, their quarrels became violent to the point where one day, while their child was a way at school, the husband took a kitchen knife and murdered his wife.

The husband now had two major problems on his hand: disposal of the body and the creation of an excuse to explain away to his son where Mother was.

With great effort and stealth, he was able to bury the body somewhere without anyone's seeing him. He then went back home, cleaned up the house and waited for his son to come home. He wracked his brain trying to think of lie that would fool the child and stop him from probing his mother's whereabouts.

He apparently didn't have to worry. For the first, second and third days, the little boy didn't ask a single question about his mother's absence. The father thought this was very odd.

"You haven't seen Mom for several days now. How come, my son, you haven't asked about her?" he finally asked the child, unable to stand it any longer.

The boy's face became clouded for a moment and then he said, "Why are you asking that, Father?  Mom's been right behind you, laughing . . . only I don't like the way Mom looks now, Dad . . . Her eyes look scary . And Dad, how come you keep turning your back on Mom?"

The father turned around, but no one was there . . .

农村真实鬼故事, accessed 3/5/13. 

The story ends without further explanation or resolution.