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."