Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Plague God Comes to Longdong (Han)

This story supposedly took place long ago, during the Warring States Era (475-221 B.C.).

It all started when the Jade Emperor sent a plague god down to the Longdong region in what is now Gansu Province.

Shanhe Zhai was, at the time, the most prosperous, bustling town in the area; it was also, sadly, a place largely inhabited by people who would be found wanting in ethics and simple decency. The people of Shanhe Zhai engaged in all kinds of evil behavior, including thievery and outright banditry and immorality.

Sickened by all the sinfulness he had witnessed, a local scholar launched a petition to the Jade Emperor for that god's intervention. Taking notice of the petition, the Jade Emperor decided to send one of the plague gods incognito down to the region to investigate the situation.  If the level of wickedness warranted it,  the plague god could spread a limited pestilence to end all the iniquity but only after all the innocents, the children, would be given pouches to wear to identify them as guiltless and thus exempt from being infected by the coming plague.

The plague god, disguised as a scholar in white robes, arrived in a cloud, mistakenly landing in the wrong area, somewhere other than Shanhe Zhai. He then traveled through neighboring villages, observing the residents. In more than one village, he overheard the local children singing the same ditty:

Heaven is blind,
The gods' powers are blind,
Ghosts are blind on the road,
People's hearts are blind. 
Before long, heaven will fall!

The plague god was incensed. "I had heard the adults here were evil, but even the children here are just as bad! Singing about gods' being blind and calling for heaven's downfall! Indeed!"

He considered the options and then decided to unleash three types of plague from the tube he carried in his sleeve: spring plague, hot-weather plague, and fall-flat-upon-the-ground plague. Surely, he thought, unleashing these plagues would be an acceptable way of carrying out the Jade Emperor's orders!

Before long, within half an hour, the three kinds of plague had done their job--no one in the immediate area where the plagues had been released was left alive. Good, innocent, bad--all had succumbed.

Thinking his job done, the plague god climbed aboard a cloud and returned to the realm of the Jade Emperor, strutting into the chamber to give his report.

The reception he was to receive was not anticipated. The Jade Emperor, fuming, knowing this plague god had harmed the innocent, ripped away from the plague god his plague tube. Then, he ordered his guards to behead the plague god.

The Jade Emperor next hurriedly dispatched the longevity god down to the afflicted area. This god worked hard to restore life to all the innocent children, women, and men who had fallen to all the pestilence the plague god had unleashed. However, since the revived had been exposed to such an onslaught of disease, there could be no guarantee that any of them would remain immune to whatever germs or viruses were still lurking on the land. So, the longevity god supplied each of those whom he had brought back to life with a "purgative" small pouch and a "longevity lock" to wear which would then allow the wearer to escape a recurrence of the plague.

As a result of all this, the good, decent folk of the Shanhe Zhai and Longdong areas were spared the ravages of the plague. Now, the local children had a new song to sing about the living and those deservedly punished:

The plague spreads death with a blind heart,
But peace now reigns below heaven.
And with the pouch that drives away pestilence,
Children will all live long lives.
The hearts of the blind are truly blind,
And those afflicted shall die.
Those who are now dead have no way to be saved,
so the god of the dead shall pursue them. 

From those days forward, on the fifth of May on the lunar calendar, adults give children pouches that contain the following ingredients which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and which dispel disease: xionghuang (雄黄 realgar, a sulfide mineral), cangshu (苍术 atractylodes lancea), xixing (细幸 asarum, wild ginger), baizhi (白芷 angelica dahurica, or white iris), dingxiang (丁香 cloves), and gansong (甘松nardostachys jatamansi), as well as other natural items. They also give children the "longevity lock" (长寿琐), actually a medallion with very short metal chains hanging from it; wearing this is believed to allow the children to live long lives. 

五月五日为啥戴荷包 [Why people carry pouches on May 5th] in 静宁民间神话传说故事 [Folk Myths and Legends From Jingning], Wang Zhisan, ed.; Beijing:, 2014 [Kindle Paperwhite]

Coincidentally or not, the above custom of wearing pouches and medallions overlaps with the Dragon Boat Festival. 

The original plague god [瘟神]was supposed to be the spirit of the legendary Emperor Zhuanxu's [颛顼] infant son, who, like his brothers, had died at birth. Each one then became a ghost. There are now five plague gods, one for each season along with one that is designated the "manager." Each one wears a robe of a different color: red, blue-green, black, white, and yellow; each carries a different item in his hand: a ladle, a jar, a leather belt and sword, a fan, a hammer, and a kettle. (See 中华鬼神 [Chinese supernatural beings] by Li Shaolin; Neimengu Chubanshe, 2006; Kindle Paperwhite.)

The Jade Emperor [玉皇 or 玉皇大帝] is the Daoist/Chinese folk religion anthropomorphization of heaven itself (This is according to the dean of Chinese mythology research, Yuan Ke; see his entry for [玉皇] in his Dictionary of Chinese Myths and Legends [中國神話傳說詞]). The story doesn't go into specifics about the Jade Emperor's having the plague god "executed." Is it hyperbole (e.g., "Wow, did you hear what Mom said to me last night? She just about killed me."), or is it meant to be literal? We don't know; the story doesn't say.  In any case, tradition holds that there are five plague gods, not four.  

The long white-bearded longevity god or longevity star [寿神 or 寿星] appears very jolly and is very conspicuous with his extremely tall, bald head. 

Motifs: cC941.4, "Plague for breaking tabu"; D1389.15, "Magic herbs (incense) protect from plague"; E50, "Resuscitation by magic"; E121.1, "Resuscitation by a god"; F493, "Spirit of plague"; Q200, "Deeds punished"; Q395, "Disrespect punished"; Q421, "Punishment: beheading"; Q552.10, "Plague as punishment."

Thursday, March 19, 2020

"Killing Ghosts": Four Short Stories From Ancient China

1. "This Place Isn't Big Enough for the Both of Us"

Ji Kang was in his room plucking away at his zither one night when a ghost suddenly appeared.

Its face was tiny, so Ji Kang didn't pay it any attention. Moments later its face and whole body instantly grew, and with the black robe it was wearing, the ghost kept blocking the light from Ji's lamp, interfering with his playing of the zither.

Ji quietly extinguished his lamp, sighed, and said, "What a pity. I guess I'll need to fight this chimei over the light."

The ghost heard this and was immediately dissolved into blood and water.

2. "I'll See You and Raise You"

Over in Yangxi (a county in Guangdong Province), there was once a pavilion. In this pavilion, on the top floor, lived Song Daxian, who, one midnight, was playing around with the zither, strumming around, just as Ji Kang in the previous story had been doing. All of a sudden, a ghost with a fearsome rictus smile appeared. Of ghosts, it could be said this one was particularly hideous.

Song Daxian, however,  paid it no mind and kept playing his zither. The ghost then abruptly left or, rather, disappeared.

The ghost momentarily reappeared, this time clutching the head of a man. The ghost then tossed the head in Song's direction as Song Daxian continued to play the zither.

Song Daxian stopped plucking the zither, looked down at the head, and happily exclaimed, "Great! I can use this as a pillow!"

Once again the ghost departed, this time for a longer period, before finally reappearing. The ghost then grabbed Song's arm, and they began to struggle. Song Daxian got the upper hand, grabbed the ghost's waist and thereupon crushed it, killing the ghost.

After that, there were no further appearances of ghosts in the pavilion.

3. "I'm Just a Fella, a Fella With an Umbrella"

There was once a peddler named San Yi, and he was out late one New Year's Eve, hawking firecrackers on a street when a ghost with a huge head the size of a water basin decided to plague him, actually hoping to frighten San Yi to death.

Now this San Yi was no fool; he could think quickly on his feet. So, he unfolded the umbrella he carried and covered his head and shoulders with it to protect himself from the ghost. He also twirled the umbrella around and around without stopping.

Fed up that it couldn't unnerve San Yi, the ghost let out a bloodcurdling shriek. Unfazed, San Yi merely shrieked back in response, drowning out the ghost's noise. The ghost then bent over, and when it stood up again, it now towered over San Yi. San Yi took off his sandals and tossed them up into the air, higher than the ghost's head, juggling the sandals, making them fly by his face like shooting stars. Now livid,  the ghost grew long bared his long fangs and shot out his long tongue. San Yi, lit a firecracker and threw it at the ghost, letting it explode in front of the ghost's face.

This shook the ghost up. Knowing it had been bested, the ghost admitted to San Yi that he, San Yi, had won the contest. The ghost then adopted a respectful posture and formally asked San Yi to become San Yi's pupil.

San Yi smiled and produced a section of hollowed-out bamboo, which, unbeknownst to the ghost, was loaded with firecrackers.

"So, you want me to be your master?" asked San Yi.

"Yes, yes!" said the ghost.

"Then, do this, my pupil. Take this bamboo and bite down on it."

"All right!"

The ghost did so, not realizing the long fuse had already been lit.

The firecrackers in the bamboo went off, blowing the ghost to pieces, causing it to turn into a small river of black water.

4. "Something-for-Brains"

There was a thin, wispy black ghost that would often annoyingly reappear in the house of Wang Yao, in Shanxi.

What made this ghost so irritating was its habits of suddenly launching into singing that bordered on howling, mimicking human voices, and, most infuriating of all, tossing excrement into the midst of a dinner party.

The Wangs had tried just about everything to rid themselves of this noxious spirit, all to no avail. They had also called in a Daoist priest who could supposedly capture such a ghost; that too failed.

One evening, while Wang Yao was eating dinner, feces was suddenly flung into Wang's soup bowl.

That was the last straw. However, Wang Yao was inspired to apply a different tack. Instead of becoming angry, he simply said aloud, "Whew. I can take dung suddenly appearing in my food. I don't mind that. I'm just afraid next time gold coins will land in my food!"

That did it.

The very next evening gold and silver coins rained down on the Wangs as they ate. This continued for a total of ten nights.

And then it all stopped.

Apparently, without access to any more gold and silver coins, the ghost moved on to somewhere else, never to plague the Wang household again!

from Ghost Stories [鬼故事] Vol.1, compiled by Sima Paguang 司馬怕光; Kindle Paperwhite. 

The rather cheeky story titles are mine, of course. The second and fourth stories can apparently be found in  Record of Searching for the Gods[搜神记] by Gan Bao (?-336 A.D). The first story comes from The Annals of Ghosts [靈鬼志] by someone surnamed Xun who lived during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 266-420)In any case, these four stories can be found in basically the same Chinese retelling all over the internet. 

These are four stories about the "laying" or exorcism of ghosts, though the first three stories deal with the outright killing of ghosts, largely bending the Western concept of what a ghost is. "Ghost" in Chinese (鬼) is an umbrella term that includes revenants, noxious spirits, demons, and such. One thing that seems worldwide is the notion that the hostile dead are tremendously gullible. 

"Chimei" (魑魅) is a type of goblin or evil spirit. 

Motifs: D2176.3, "Evil spirit exorcised"; E281, "Ghost haunts house"; E293, "Ghost frightens people"; E402.1.1.3, "Ghost cries and screams"; E402.1.1.4, "Ghost sings"; E446, "Ghost killed and thus finally laid"; E454, "Ghost is laid by giving it a never-ending or impossible task"; S139., "Heads brandished to intimidate foe."