Why China Shouldn’t Exorcise Its Ghost Stories

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.” Read the full article here.

– This is original content by Sixth Tone and has been republished with permission.