Ghosts, Lovers, & Boundaries

Consider the ghost character in Chinese culture, specifically, my use of the ghost character in fiction and a look at the tradition from where this character comes. As I have written in a long lost/forgotten blog, my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, crosses the boundaries of several genres. One of those genres is the traditional Chinese ghost story - a type of story that is based on boundary crossing. In my short stories and novels, I make frequent reference to boundary crossings between the Yin realm of the spirits and the Yang realm of the visible human world. In early medieval Chinese literature there arose an influential genre of writings dealing with such border crossings known as zhiguai (records/accounts of anomalies). The later Tang chuanqi (tales of wonder) were, in part, based on the influence of the zhiguai as Tang writers used those sources to fashion into short stories to entertain their peers.

Robert Ford Campany in his comprehensive study of these early accounts (Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China, SUNY Press, Albany, 1996), has written:

During or perhaps even before the Han dynasty, a cosmographic genre – a genre of writing about anomalous phenomena – began to coalesce in China. Its growth accelerated rapidly in the centuries after the fall of the Han. (p.21)

Why did the Chinese collect these accounts of “strange” occurrences? Campany insightfully notes:

To rule the world was to collect the world. Governance entailed a cosmographic enterprise, a placing of the periphery, especially that which was anomalous in the periphery, into some systematic relationship with the center. There was a locative concern to have ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ Once things were collected, writing enabled them to be situated and depicted in a unified taxonomic field, a text, table, picture, or chart structured according to the proper moral principles and correlative categories. (p.125)

So, the Chinese sought to order their universe and even those things that didn’t fit that moral order had to be given a place, thus the lists and records of the “strange.” Seen from this perspective, Campany makes an interesting comment about Confucius’ position when he writes:

This same ambivalence toward the strange and the spirit-realm is expressed in the Analects list of things Confucius did not speak of, as well as in its admonition to ‘sacrifice to the spirits as if the spirits were present.’ Note, however, that the Confucian attitude is not one of indifference but rather of studied avoidance. Spirits and rites for them, shamans, and other such matters obviously formed the locus of a problem for the this-worldly, morality-centered Confucian approach to life. (p.127)

However, this “problem” did not exist for all of Confucius’ contemporaries:

In late Warring States thought, only a few voices – notably that of the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi – dissented clearly and strongly from a worldview that included, or at least was compatible with, this cosmographic structure. The Zhuangzi inner chapters argued the irrelevance of fixed taxonomies, the danger of clear hierarchies of value, the relativity of cultural judgment, and the limitations of language; they showed delight in the anomalous and the extraordinary as revealing aspects of reality not dreamt of in the received view of things, hence as uncollectible (or, rather, ‘collection’ lost its sense). (p.126)

So we have a tension here between the Confucian and, ultimately, Daoist views of the nature of the cosmos. My first novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, takes the latter viewpoint in presenting the world of 8th century China. Thus my author’s statement notes:

The adventure you are about to embark on is based upon an 8th century Chinese understanding of reality.

And that “reality” is influenced by the point of view of the Zhuangzi. Anymore than that would put me in danger of trying to tell you, dear readers, what the novel is about – “impose no cosmographical structures, not even that one!”

What is the nature of these “anomalies”? Campany provides us with further insight when he writes:

In the strictest sense, anomalies do not simply happen. Events happen, various people and objects exist, and they are judged and called odd, extraordinary, even contranatural by human agents within communities, who judge and call them so with reference to some reigning worldview, system, ideology into which they do not readily fit. This judging and call are the stuff of cosmography. (p.3)

In other words, people decide what is strange and what is not. As we can see today, some people accept ghosts and some consider the idea complete nonsense. In ancient China, Campany found that:

Most (but not all) anomalies represented in the anomaly accounts occur at or across boundaries.

In short, anomaly accounts portray a world in which boundaries between kinds and realms are less like walls in a building than like cell membranes in an organism.  (p.266)

I dare say we can see that today among those who believe in the supernatural.

This idea of boundaries is of great interest to me. In Dream of the Dragon Pool, I look at a number of “border crossings.” Our protagonist, the poet Li Bo is trying to cross back into the “realm of inspiration” from which he feels locked out. His immediate solution is to seek a dream state from which he hopes that he can cross over from consciousness into dream and find a solution. But in 8th century China, not only can the imagination cross over from wakeful consciousness to dream awareness, so can physical objects. As Li Bo’s faithful companion, Ah Wu, warns him, dreams can turn into nightmares. And the Albino Assassin is a character who, through esoteric arts, has mastered the crossing from wakeful reality into the realm of nightmare.

Another border runner is the green-eyed blond ghost from Sogdiana (present day Uzbekistan), Chen Shao-lin. Her character has several sources of inspiration for me. Let’s begin with a favorite topic, the Tang tales of wonder (chuanqi). Pasted on my computer monitor is this comment about ghosts in reference to their significance in the Tang tales of wonder:

Ghosts are metaphors, not necessarily reality – they are eloquent manifestations of underlying human passions.

I don’t know where I got that, but when I write about ghosts this idea is very much in my mind. Perhaps because of this I see “Chinese” ghosts as very human. But I am not alone in this view. Anthony C. Yu (“‘Rest, Rest, Perturbed Spirit!’ Ghosts in Traditional Chinese Prose Fiction,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 47, 1987, pp.397-434) quotes J.J. M. DeGroot’s multivolume study of the Chinese religion, The Religious System of China, regarding the continuing visits by ghosts in the Chinese tradition:

Visits are paid by the dead to the living to bid them farewell and discourse with them about their domestic concerns; to enjoy the sexual pleasures of married life; to satiate the curiosity of their kinfolk by telling them about their adventures, fate and prospects in the other world; to tell them what measures they ought to take to alleviate their misery and improve their conditions there. Not seldom they appear just when sacrifices are set out for them, attracting them by their flavor to the ancestral home.

From this Yu points out:

Of the countless tales of this genre, a large number have thus taken up the theme of the ghost lover. Indeed, this theme apparently enjoys such enormous popularity that storytellers seem eager to explore and exploit every possible nuance of its development: not only do the dead take living spouses, but they may even arrange marriages for friends. Humans and their ghost mates may enjoy all the delights of the living, including the bearing and rearing of children. (p.423)

This then is the “amorous ghost” or ghost lover genre in traditional Chinese fiction and, later, in Chinese cinema. And from that tradition, another immediate source for my Miss Chen was the character Nie Xiao-qian from Tsui Hark’s movie, A Chinese Ghost Story. Which, in turn, was taken from a short story bearing that name authored by the great Pu Songling (1640-1715) and collected in his Strange Tales from the Leisure Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi).

Nie Xiao-qian (Joey Wang’s character in the movie) is a classic Chinese female ghost – a mistreated beauty with a kind heart who’s trying to make the best out of a bad situation. Forced to be subservient to a demonic power, she falls in love with a naive young scholar. Just as in Pu Songling’s story, my Miss Chen is able to freely cross that porous boundary between the Yin and Yang realms. And also controlled by a demon, she falls in love. What interests me the most about Chinese ghosts is their humanity. Thus, even as a ghost, my Miss Chen, like Pu Songling’s Miss Nie, seeks to retain her humanity and help others.

I also found the same tradition in Japanese fiction when I had the opportunity to see the great Japanese movie, Ugetsu (1953) by world-renowned director, Mizoguchi Kenji, as taken from the world of Japanese literature. That movie is one of the most elegant cinematic statements of the porousness of the boundary between the human and the ghost world and of the emotions that bind the two realms. The female ghost who seduces one of the main male leads expresses the full range of humanity in her need for love and her fierceness in being denied that fulfillment. Ugetsu is a classic in this genre of the enchanted ghost lover. I use both A Chinese Ghost Story and Ugetsu in my Boston University writing seminar: "Paradox of the Strange in East Asian Cinema and Fiction."

As for my latest novel, Listening to Rainwe still find ourselves in a medieval Chinese world. So our protagonists, the Shaolin monk, Tanzong, and his cohort, the Imperial Commissioner, Li Wei frequently make these “border crossings” into the realm of the Strange where the Yin and Yang realms bleed into each other. These “border crossings” are especially frequent with Tanzong who seems to have inherited some of his father’s shamanistic skills.

Further, in this volume, Tanzong and Li Wei travel into the regions of the Tang dynasty's far South. During medieval China, the northerners considered these lands to be fraught with the Strange. The geography and inhabitants of the topical South were considered mysterious and dangerous. These were regions reserved for exile and death. In Listening to Rain and the subsequent volumes of this adventure series, the Strange looms much larger and more profoundly than in my previous work.

Within the Chinese literary tradition, the genre I have chosen to emulate is known as wuxia shenguaiWuxia of course is martial or heroic fiction. The term shenguai (literally: spirits and the strange) relates to the Strange, to that realm where “reality” and “illusion” bleed into each other. Some deem it to mean, “fantasy.” From the fiction short story origins of the wuxia genre in the Tang dynasty, the shenguai aspect was a strong presence. This presence remained right up through the early 20th century era of Chinese cinema. In summing up the developments in Chinese cinema by the end of the 1920s, Stephen Teo remarks:

Henceforth, I will refer to the genre generally as wuxia shenguai to signify its existence as a single genre containing both elements of fantasy and swordplay. In time, the word shenguai was dropped, as the fantasy element became such an inherent part of the wuxia genre that there was no need to qualify it. (Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2009. p.29)

Since Teo focuses on the wuxia cinema tradition, he has no need to refer back to the earliest literary stages of this genre as I have above. Thus we can see that the modern Chinese cinema tradition carries on the Tang dynasty fascination with the shenguai aspects of this genre. It is from this Tang tradition that I draw my wuxia storytelling inspiration. In the wuxia genre, the boundaries between the Yin and Yang realms continue to be crossed in both modern East Asian cinema and in my fiction.

Yet, it is Pu Songling, the great 18th century Chinese master of Strange fiction, who contended that our understanding of the world originates from within us and not from the world that surrounds us. Hopefully, my fiction will reflect this point of view with which I firmly agree.

The Innkeeper