It’s dark. You’re alone. A cold breeze sends shivers up your spine as you stare at the pages of your long in-progress novel with despair. Suddenly, some unseen force possesses your hand and begins crossing out weeks of work! Aghast, you read over the remnants of your mangled manuscript, only to find that the phantasmic fiend has — the horror! — given your draft a much-needed edit.
Unless you harbor an unnatural fear of brevity or grammatical correctness, this opening scene to the classic Chinese ghost story “Xiucai Guo” may not strike terror into your heart. Yet the tale, one of over 400 found in Pu Songling’s Qing Dynasty horror collection, “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio,” is an example of how Chinese writers have used ghosts in unexpected and often evocative ways. Case in point: The rest of Pu’s narrative focuses not on vanquishing the bookish ghost, but on the writer’s supernaturally inspired rise to literary prominence and how his unearned arrogance eventually drives the spirit to abandon him to his own mediocrity.
To many, reading ghost stories may seem like nothing more than a chilling way to while away an evening. But the more of them I’ve read, the more I’ve come to appreciate their literary value. These heart-pounding accounts of otherworldly apparitions also contain important reflections on the human condition. At a time when tales of demons, specters, and the supernatural are being exorcised from China’s mainstream media, the country’s classical ghost stories should demonstrate that these ghouls still have plenty to teach us.
That’s not to say that “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio” doesn’t feature its share of blood and guts. In one story, titled “The Painted Skin,” a shape-shifting young girl rips out a man’s heart — literally — when he tries to banish her from his home. But many of the creatures in Pu’s collection tend more toward the bizarre — such as the haunted vegetation brewed into tea in “The Shui-Mang Plant,” which murders its imbibers and bars them from reincarnation — or the benign, like the ghostwriter in “Xiucai Guo.”
Whereas typical horror narratives often emphasize the terror of the supernatural, these Qing Dynasty tales sometimes suggest that humans are the ones you need to watch out for. In another spooky story, “Wu Qiuyue,” a man meets a young female ghost and — rather than being frightened — frantically starts having sex with her. Their story culminates in a disastrous trip to the underworld, where the man ends up landing the much-beleaguered spook in hot water with the supernatural authorities. Though he proves himself willing to fight demons, rescue the ghost from the infernal dungeon, and even marry her, she’s the one who ultimately pays the price for his actions: She is reincarnated early and, as a result, spends her next life cursed with brittle bones.
While readers might never experience such Orphean hellishness in reality, most surely know the vague feeling of being haunted. In the darkest depths of the night, it is not the icy chill of a ghost’s presence, but the horror of self-doubt and insecurity that creeps in. And in that midnight hour, we must confront our worst selves. Ghost stories — Chinese or otherwise — give us a chance to reflect on and reckon with these shadows.
An illustration of a scene from ‘Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,’ on display in Ji’nan, Shandong province, Dec. 5, 2012. IC
“Lord of the Rings” author J. R. R. Tolkien presents this idea in his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” He challenges the view, espoused by some contemporary critics, that the classic Anglian poem is inferior to other epics because it deals with the “crude” subject of monsters.
Tolkien argues that fantasy can reach readers in a way that more conventional fiction can’t. By making the real strange, the genre forces us to reconsider things we might otherwise take for granted, opening our minds to new perspectives. In another essay, Tolkien refers to the return from fantasy back to reality as a “recovery,” or a state of seeing the world anew. Nowadays, this might be thought of as something like “reverse culture shock”: A person who comes back from a trip to a strange land may not be the same as the one who left.
Though Tolkien felt a stronger need to defend goblins and fairies in his time than we might — unsurprising, given that most of his contemporaries viewed fantasy as something only children could enjoy — the occasional critic still crops up today to dismiss supernatural stories for not addressing real-world issues. But ghost stories can be a vehicle for uncomfortable truths that we’d rather not admit. Instead of seeing them merely as cheap thrills or frivolous entertainment, we ought to appreciate the subtle ways horror authors use the paranormal both to scare and to enlighten.
This isn’t unique to China. In Dickens’ famous novel “A Christmas Carol,” the author presents us with a series of ghostly apparitions, and yet, it’s only when we watch Scrooge take the ghost’s hand and travel with him to the past that we realize that he is a man haunted, not by the supernatural, but by his own choices. The reader gets goosebumps from the ghost’s beckoning fingers, true, but it’s Ebenezer Scrooge’s own life that holds the true terror.
Like Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” the phantasmagoric journeys we embark upon with ghosts can inform us about our own reality. What, we readers must ask, are the apparitions we meet trying to tell us? Is “The Painted Skin” truly just about a terrifying shape-shifter? Or, underneath her morphing skin, can we hear the howls of an enraged, perhaps long-ignored woman, venting her pent-up anger on anyone in sight? Is “Xiucai Guo” a simple lark about a friendly spirit trying to help an ungrateful writer gain literary acclaim? Or is it a clever treatise on academic honesty and integrity? These poltergeists have plenty to say, if we’re willing to listen.
It’s a shame, then, that ghost stories now struggle to find a readership in China. In 2008, the government — concerned about the spread of “superstition” — added supernatural elements to the list of content banned in films, books, and other media. Unless grounded in traditional Chinese culture or ending with an “it was all just a dream” cop-out, ghost stories and their adaptations rarely find their way to Chinese audiences. But when they do get through, as the Pixar film “Coco” did last year, they can be successful.
Rather than banishing these spooky spirits from the culture, we ought to be paying more attention to them. As “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio” demonstrates, our own shadows are often far more demonic than any otherworldly creature could ever be. These tales bring us face-to-face with ghosts and ask us to look past their translucent skin to the human souls lurking within. They endure not just for their esteemed place in China’s literary tradition, but because they are a bridge back to ourselves, to our own fears, and to what we see when we look in the mirror.
China’s ghost stories reveal the dark places our minds go when the lights turn out. And no one who encounters these specters — whether the hero, the villain, or the reader — can walk away unchanged.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: An illustration of a scene from ‘Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,’ on display at the National Museum of China, Beijing, Dec. 5, 2012. Liu Zhaoming/IC)