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Ghost Tales Through History

A quick look at the ghost stories in Chinese literature history

06·19·2013

In China’s long history, almost every dynasty has some masterpieces or legends of ghosts. Here, we’ve selected some of the best ones for you to check out. In chronological order:

Shan Hai Jing (《山海经》) is a fabled geographical account of pre-Qin Dynasty China as well as a collection of  fairy tales. The exact author and the time it was written are still unknown and most sociologists in China think that it may be written by numerous writers from the Warring States (475B.C.-221B.C.) to the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206B.C.-220A.D.). As one of the most ancient books in China, it contains vivid and detailed description of medicines, animals and geological features, enabling readers to peek into the China of thousands of years ago.

The book also involves many fairy stories which are well-known today. For example, the story of Kua Fu (夸父), in which the  giant Kua Fu ran from East to West in hope of chasing and catching the sun. Finally, he died of extreme heat and exhaustion and his club was transformed into a forest. Another famous story is about Jingwei (精卫). In that story, Jingwei, the daughter of the emperor Yandi (炎帝), drowned in the East Sea. After her death, she was transformed into a bird,  bringing stones and small twigs over the sea every day in an attempt to fill it up. Other stories like Xing Tian Fighting Against The Supreme Divinity(刑天舞干戚 Xíngtiān Wǔ Gànqi) and Nuwa Creating Repairing The Wall of Heaven(女娲补天 Nǚ wā Bǔ Tiān)are very famous as well.

In Search of The Supernatural (搜神记 Sōu Shén Jì) is a compilation of legends about ghosts and spirits. The author is believed to be Gan Bao (干宝), a historian living in the 4th century. This book consists of 464 short stories, and some of them are still widely known today. For example, there is the story of a filial woman who, after her mother-in-law’s suicide, was accused of killing her and therefore sentenced to death. After she died, her blood did not flow down, but rather went upwards as she had predicted before. Injustice was thus exposed. Based on this story, the Yuan playwright Guan Hanqing (关汉卿) wrote his masterpiece The Injustice of Dou E (《感天动地窦娥冤》 Gǎn Tiān Dòng Dì Dòu’ é Yuān). The love story between Dong Yong ( 董永) and one of the Seven Fairies was also recorded in this book.

In the Tang Dynasty (唐朝 táng cháo), a large number of ghost stories also emerged. Some remain as bone-chilling as ever, like the story of Meeting Ghosts One Night in Dongyang (《东阳夜怪录》 Dōngyáng Yè Guài Lù). In this tale, a traveling man entered a temple to stay for the night. In that dark temple he found several other people and chatted with them all night. However, when day broke, everyone disappeared. The man look around and realized that the people with whom he had talked with all night transformed into animals around him, one turning into a donkey and another a camel. The man was terrified.

Another interesting story is the tale of The Governor of Nanke (《南柯太守传》 Nánkē Tàishǒu Zhuàn). In this story, a drunk man found himself in an unknown kingdom, there he was bestowed great power and married the princess. In the end, the man found himself back in his home and his story in the remote country turned out to be nothing but a dream. This story is so famous that it has led to the idiom “Nankeyimeng” (南柯一梦) to describe such a splendid fantasy, despite the emptiness of real life.

In the Qing Dynasty(1616-1911) more books with ghost stories were published. One of them is Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio(《聊斋志异》 Liáozhāi Zhì Yì). This book, written by Pu Songling(蒲松龄), is a collection of nearly five hundred mostly supernatural tales, we have a blog retelling one of the stories here. In Pu’s stories, most ghosts are brave and honest, while humans are cowardly and greedy. Pu intended to criticize people’s immorality and expose the dark side of the society in his age.

Some love stories in this book also gained fame and today have been filmed as a TV series.

Another book which is less well known is called He Dian(《何典》). The author sets the scene in hell, and tells the legend of a ghost called Living Dead. The book is written in Wu dialect and its language is very humorous, though also a bit vulgar. Similarly to Pu Songling, the author also intended to satirize reality with his work.

If you are interested in ghost stories and ancient Chinese culture, why not choose one of them to read? Or check out our blog on the haunted church of Chaoyangmennei. This time of the year is getting close to ghost season, read about the August festival here.

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