Not your typical ghost stories - try China's instead

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2011 

“Chinese Ghost Stories” will broaden your appreciation of the supernatural.

Lafcadio Hearn was a Victorian-era writer who, after a long colorful life, ended up in Asia, spending the last 14 years in Japan. An Irishman, he was a journalist, fiction writer and poet with a taste for the eerie.

Working off various translations from the Chinese, he wrote ghost stories that are very different from the European or American variety.

Instead of terrifying ghosts who bedevil their victims, Hearn’s spirits are more aligned with Asian culture, with an emphasis on filial piety, self-sacrifice and death.

In “The Legend of Zhi Nu,” a young man Dong sells himself into slavery so that he can afford to bury his father with the appropriate rituals. Several years later, he falls ill and is healed by beautiful woman named Zhi who appears out of nowhere. They marry, have children, and one day she buys his freedom by selling the scarves that she weaves on a daily basis.

“For as she wove, the silk flowed from the loom with a slow current of glossy gold, bearing upon its undulations strange forms of violet and crimson and jewel-green shapes of ghostly horsemen riding on horses, and of phantom chariots dragon-drawn and of standards of trailing cloud.”

In the end she leaves. “Know, my beloved that I was sent to thee even by the Master of Heaven, in reward of thy filial piety, and that I must now return to the glory of His house: I am the goddess Zhi Nu.”

A more traditional ghost story to Western eyes is “The Story of Ming Yi” where a young up-and-coming scholar becomes a tutor for a noble family. On a trip back to his home, he falls in love with a beautiful woman living at a country estate named Xie. Their dalliance leads to the first lie: he says to his employer that his mother requests that he go home each night. This allows Ming Yi spend each night with Xie.

Sooner or later his family and employer figure this out, accost him, and he explains. Doing a little research they find out that the beauteous Xie was a famous courtesan who had died centuries before.

Unlike in most Western tradition, the boy doesn’t pine or waste away. Ming Yi becomes a family man, and rises to a high position of power. But his heart always belonged to his first love, Xie, every time he looks at gifts she gave him — a centuries-old lion carved of yellow jade and “a brush-case of carven agate.”

Victoria Cass, a scholar who works in the field of traditional Chinese culture and myths, wrote the introduction to “Chinese Ghost Stories” and points out that “four of his Chinese ghost stories detail personal sacrifice and the deep sense of pious awe for ancestors, family and emperor.” Hearn himself worked off earlier translations from the Chinese by others. His slightly florid writing style is that of Yates, Shelley and Bram Stoker, famous for writing “Dracula.”

So broaden your supernatural horizon. Boo!

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“Chinese Ghost Stories: Curious Tales of the Supernatural” by Lafcadio Hearn; Tuttle Publishing, North Clarendon, VT (96 pages, $9.95)

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