Thursday, August 1, 2019

What to Do and What Not to Do During the Month of Ghosts

It's been a while since I posted anything because I've been busy with a writing project. However, I'd like to share with you a neat short article on the taboos related to the Seventh Month of the Lunar Calendar, the Month of Ghosts:

10 terrifying taboos to dodge during Taiwan&#... | Taiwan News

Monday, April 15, 2019

"Thank you, Brothers . . . " -- Another Taiwanese Urban Legend From the Cold War

Many thanks to my good friend Tina for relating this story to me. She had heard it from others and had not read it in a book, making this an FOAF (friend of a friend) story or, in other words, an urban legend. 

This story takes place during the rule of President Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887-1975), specifically during the crucial Battle of Kinmen in October 1949, one of the last actions of the Chinese Civil War.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) had landed on Guningtou (Kuningtou), one of the small islands off the coast of China and which were and still are held by Taiwan. The battle was bitter and fierce. A victory for the PLA would have meant a huge psychological blow to the Kuomintang (KMT) government on Taiwan and paved the way for the eventual landing of PLA troops on Taiwan itself. The soldiers of the Republic of China (ROC) army keenly understood the stakes involved and fought to preserve every inch of Guningtou.

At one point in the battle, on a stretch of beach, the tanks of ROC army were used to roll over and crush the PLA soldiers. This in fact happened, and many ROC soldiers who found themselves engaged in hand-to-hand combat with PLA soldiers were also inadvertently run over and killed. How many ROC soldiers died this way? All we know is that there were many.

By the end of October, the battle was over. The PLA force had been defeated, with most either killed or captured.

The ROC army then set up observation stations along the beach on Guningtou manned by soldiers who remained on watch twenty-four hours a day.

Then, something happened . . .

ROC soldiers stationed on the beach began to request transfers; some tried to avoid going to the beach stations; others deserted.

What was going on?

A high-ranking officer interviewed some of these soldiers, and they all said the same thing: Ghosts haunted the beach at twilight. The officer thought this was a load of nonsense and went himself to the beach to see if there was any substance to these stories. He stood on a ridge overlooking the beach. After sundown, he witnessed whisps of luminous smoke gradually form themselves into human shapes, the shapes of men whose bodies had been twisted into unnatural postures, whose smokey limbs appeared to be maimed or ripped off, whose heads had been decapitated.

The officer reported this to his superiors, who, in turn, reported back to the KMT government. The report reached the desk of President Chiang himself.

Given the large number of men who were refusing to be assigned guard duty along the beach, President Chiang decided to fly to Kinmen and then take a boat to Guningtou. He needed to have a look just in case something was really taking place on the beach. He, along with his bodyguard detail, would see for himself what was going on. All those involved knew what this meant: If no ghosts materialized in front of Chiang, those being held for desertion, dereliction of duty, and spreading rumors of ghosts--all serious charges in wartime--would be summarily executed.

President Chiang and his entourage arrived and found a vantage point above the beach to observe. The sun finally set but no ghosts had yet appeared. The president continued to watch and to scan the beach. Minute after minute ticked by, with the beach still empty of any kind of human presence.

And then wisps of luminous smoke slowly materialized, hundreds of them. They finally took the forms of damaged, broken bodies seen earlier by other soldiers. The forms began to gather and verge on the area where President Chiang sat. They lined up in formation, facing the man who in their lifetimes had been their leader, and who was now observing them from above the beach. Those that still possessed what had once been in their lifetimes their arms saluted President Chiang.

President Chiang stood up and said, "Thank you, Brothers, for your hard work and your ultimate sacrifice. I am pleased to tell you that the fighting is over. Rest easy."

Chiang Kai-shek finished speaking and left with his men, shortly afterward returning to Taiwan.

The ghosts were never seen again. The soldiers that had been arrested and were slated to be executed were spared.

For another urban legend of that era, see the posting for 6/19/11. 

Motifs: E330, "Location haunted by non-malevolent dead"; E334.5, "Ghost(s) of soldier(s) haunt battlefield"; E421.3, "Luminous ghosts"; E421.5, "Ghosts seen by two or more people; they corroborate the appearances"; 422.1.1, "Headless (ghosts)"; E451, "Ghosts rest when certain thing happens"; E587, "Ghosts walk at certain times."

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Mouse's Wedding Night--Two Versions (Han)

The upcoming Chinese New Year will be the Year of the Pig. However, very much associated with the new year is a fable known all over China and Taiwan, and it concerns an evening several days into the new year when two mice (or rats) have a grand wedding ceremony. As huge as China is, it isn't surprising that there is more than one version.

Happy New Year!

(1) A Version From Foshan, Guangdong Province

It was the seventeenth evening of the New Year, and there was no moon out. The mice were busy, all making feverish preparations, for two of them were to be married this night. This is, in fact, the night every year the mice are supposed to marry, and it is a gala night of festivities that would normally attract the attention of any cat.

And what of the cat?

Every year special precautions--dangerous undertakings for the mice involved--have to be made to take care of the cat. On this evening, all the mice join together to make sure the night's event can go off without a hitch, to make sure the cat doesn't take advantage of a bunch of mice gathered conveniently together in one spot.

So this is what the mice do. Being mice, they employ their natural talents to steal, in this case, several fresh fishes, along with an opened bottle of rice wine. Then, some other mice conspire to lead the cat to the fishes and the bottle of alcohol. How do they do so, you may ask? They leave a lucky red envelope on a path the cat is sure to take. The envelope will typically have the following words written by the mouse bride: "In celebration of the mice's wedding, three choice fishes and a bottle of rice wine for you, Brother Cat." Just beyond the red envelope sit the fishes and bottle of rice wine, an invitation for the cat to eat to its heart's content.

A mouse spy observes the cat as it begins to eat the fishes. The spy then reports back: "The cat has begun to scarf down the fishes!"

The spy returns to observe the cat drink the rice wine. As is usually the case, after the cat eats up its favorite food, it caps it off by drinking just half a bottle of rice wine, enough to plunge the cat into a nice drunken stupor.

As soon as this brother mouse spy is sure he can approach the cat and stroke its whiskers, the spy returns to the gathering of mice to announce: "The cat's drunk!"

The mice hear this and all laugh for joy and relief! Happiest of all is the bride, for she knows that on this very night she can indeed be married.

The festivities can commence!

With drums banging, gongs booming, and firecrackers exploding, the groom and his procession--a long, snaky line of kinsmen--arrive to pick up the bride.

As for the cat, if the feline is still awake, the mice know the cat will be half inebriated, still too drunk to chase mice, and more interested in munching any morsels of fish that might have been overlooked.

(2) A Version From Taiwan 

A mouse father and mother once had a daughter on whom they absolutely doted. They wanted only the best for their daughter, and as she grew to early maturity, they began to consider possible matches for their her.

"Only the best for our little girl!" the father said. "No ordinary mouse will do! We must find only the strongest, bravest, greatest future husband for her, mouse or not."

"Yes, yes," said the mother, "but, who?"

"I have it! The sun! Who or what is greater than the sun? Who is bigger and stronger than the sun?"

The wife agreed, so the couple went out to the field to call out to the sun.

"Mr. Sun!" said the father. "You are the greatest in the world! Therefore, we'd like you to be our daughter's husband!"

The sun frowned and began to sweat. "Well, thank you very much for your high opinion of me and your wanting me to marry your daughter. In all honesty, though, I'm certainly not the greatest and have to decline the honor!"

"But why?" asked the father.

"Because the cloud is greater than I am! If the cloud comes out, he can totally cover me up and you won't even see me!"

The father and mother looked at each other and nodded. They agreed that what the sun had said made sense. So, off they went to seek the cloud.

Finding the cloud, the father looked up and said, "Mr. Cloud! We've heard that you are the greatest in the world! It is for that reason we would like to ask you to marry our daughter!"

The cloud winced and said, "I thank you for the honor, but I cannot help you!"

"Why not?"

"I'm simply not the greatest! The wind is greater than I am. Every time he blows upon me, I disappear. You'd better ask him!"

Disappointed, the father and mother thanked the cloud and went in search of the wind. Finding the wind, the husband said, "Mr. Wind! We've been told you are the greatest in the world! Would you kindly marry our daughter?'

Hearing this, the wind, annoyed at the cloud for involving him in someone else's problem, responded, "Thank you for looking up to me with such regard. I am not, though, the greatest in the world."

"Who would that be, Mr. Wind?"

"Naturally, that would be none other than the wall!" said the wind. "Why, as soon as I hit the wall, my power crumbles! Thanks for your offer, but you'd be better off asking the wall."

The father and mother, now even more disappointed and fretful that they would ever find the perfect mate for their daughter, went to speak to the wall.

"Mr. Wall," said the father, "you're the greatest of all, and we need your help as parents!"

"Please tell me what's on your mind," he said kindly.

"We're at the end of our wits trying to find the perfect suitor for our daughter! We've asked the sun, the cloud, and the wind, with each telling us he is not the greatest. Now, the wind has told us to come to you. Only the greatest man will do for our daughter. Mr. Wall, would you please consent to marry our daughter?"

The wall was silent for a moment and then said, "It's funny you should think I'm the greatest! There's actually something greater than I."

"Oh, no," groaned the father, anticipating another quest to ask someone else. "Who?"

The wall laughed. "Don't you know that I fear most of all you mice? You mice are the greatest! You can burrow into me, causing me to crack here and split there until I am in danger of totally collapsing! No, no, I'm not the greatest. How could I be if I remain in total fear of you! How could I ever be the greatest if you could completely wreck me, leaving me in pieces?"

The father and mother laughed and hugged each other. They now realized the truth, thanks to their search and the words of the wall. They themselves--mice--were the greatest, the strongest. They put up posters announcing a competition for a mouse groom. The day of the competition would be the third day of the new year.

On the day of the competition, male mice from far and wide came to the area to vie for the position of suitor. However, it began to rain, and the rain caused a flood which washed out the bridge, stranding all but ten mice contestants on the other side of the river.

The competiton proceeded with the ten contestants. Eventually, the mouse parents were able to select a sturdy, dependable mouse as groom for their beloved daughter!

The pair wed and remained devoted to each other for all their days.

Chen Qinghao and Wang Qiugui, eds., 廣東民間故事集: 中國民間故事全集, 3. [A collection of folktales from Guangdong: the complete collection of folktales from China, vol.3]; Taipei: Yuanliu, 1989; pp. 100-102; 老鼠嫁女(民间传说)_百度百科老鼠嫁女的故事内容是什么?有着什么寓意?老鼠娶亲 - 睡前故事 - 5岁儿童故事 - 贝瓦故事民間故事:老鼠娶親 | 歲時禮俗 | 民俗文化百問百答 | 大紀元(5) 08老鼠娶親 - YouTube

The first version comes from Chen and Wang. The Taiwanese version is from the above YouTube link.
Interestingly, the Taiwanese version very closely parallels the details of the third Chinese joke from the 12/25/18 posting.

The Chinese language doesn't distinguish very precisely between "mouse" and "rat." Both are referred to as laoshu, [老鼠]. However, an informant from Northwestern China, one of my students, said that in his locality, rats were further distinguished as haozi [耗子] (i.e., "consumer," "waster," "one that gobbles up,"), though this too can indicate "mouse" as well as "rat."

Some areas (e.g., Foshan) hold that the seventeenth evening of the Lunar Calendar is the wedding night of the mice, while the tradition in other areas, such as Taiwan, have it as the third evening. Whichever evening it is, we are all supposed to hit the sack early so as to let the mice prepare and carry out the ceremony without interference or peeping from us humans. In addition, as V. R. Burkhardt suggests (Chinese Creeds and Customs, Vol. 2; Taipei, Dunhuang, pp. 43-44; 1977), offerings are left out as a plea or bribe to prevent mice/rats from depleting the family's larder for the rest of the year.  In Akira Kurosawa's 1990 film Dreams, there is a section titled "Sunshine Through the Rain," which is about the Japanese folk belief that foxes have their weddings and wedding processions in the forest on rainy but concurrently sunny days. All this is depicted through the eyes of a boy who sneaks off to the forest to see this phenomenon for himself. He thus breaks a taboo and is spanked by his mom and forced to write a letter of apology to the foxes to prevent future bad luck, just as some Chinese families might leave food out as a bribe to avoid trouble from mice/rats. My daughter's classmate, a young woman from South Africa, told me that in her native land such "sunshowers" indicated that the monkeys were having their wedding party in the forest. 

Still other versions of the second tale have the bride's parents coming to the conclusion that the best, strongest candidate for groom would be the cat himself. The cat very willingly accedes to the request, with the story concluding in a predictably much less than happy ending for the mice. 

Motifs: B280, "Animal weddings"; B281.2, "Wedding of mouse"; B299.3, "Animals (cat) discover liquor and get intoxicated"; C300, "Looking tabu"; C316, "Tabu: Looking at certain animal"; H310, "Suitor tests"; H331, "Suitor contests: Bride offered as a prize"; T132, "Preparation for a wedding"; 
cT133.3, "Drummer beats drum before bride on way to wedding."