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Daoist Yè Meets Four Ghosts

People who die violently are believed in China to become particularly dangerous ghosts because, for reasons nobody seems able to explain, each such victim is doomed to haunt the place of death until another person can be lured to a similar fate as a “substitute.”

As a practical matter, this belief has led to most Chinese through the centuries seeing bodies of water as potentially extremely dangerous, and even today children are rarely encouraged to learn to swim. It is still nearly impossible to sell or rent out a house in which someone has been killed (or even simply died). And religious processions are still, as always in the past, subject to “unexplained” disruptions at intersections or other places where people have died in automobile accidents.

Both Buddhist and Daoist clerics are involved with funerals and memorial services for the dead as well as with occasional possessions or exorcisms. They virtually always claim not to fear ghosts. But they do not deny their existence. In films and other popular culture, they are often represented as having at least limited power over ghosts.

The following curious tale concerns a certain Yè Lǎotuō 叶老脱, presented as a master of the Way (dào ), although not necessarily a priest. In this tale, the ghosts of those who died violently seem able to travel beyond their places of death and to have formed a kind of small fraternity of souls unable to move on to reincarnation. Also interestingly, Yè’s esoteric arts have reached such a level that he is able to break through the cosmic constraint that binds those who die by violence, and by his simple granting of permission (and their submission to his authority), they are put out of their misery.

The author of this text is one Yuán Méi 袁枚 (1716-1797), who passed the highest (jìnshì 进士) civil service exam at the young age of 23 and had a successful career as a magistrate in several locations, retiring from officialdom at the age of only 32 to devote himself to literary and artistic pursuits. He was famed in his own era as a poet, artist, scholar, and even as a travel writer and food critic!

But another continuing interest of Yuán’s was religion and the supernatural. Literary critics see the influence of Buddhism in his writings (although he apparently scorned institutionalized religion), and he seems to have amused himself collecting tales of supernatural occurrences and ghostly apparitions. These he compiled into a volume he called, Things the Master Didn’t Talk About (Zǐ Bù Yǔ 子不语. “The master,” of course, is Confucius, who famously dismissed discussion of supernaturalism as a waste of time. The following story is from that collection.

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Acknowledgements: The scanned traditional Chinese text is from the Gutenberg Project. Simplified and Pinyin versions were mechanically created from it. My translation was inspired and informed by the anonymously edited 1961 volume Rakontoj pri fantom-spitantoj. (Kompilita de la Literatura Instituto de la Ĉina Akademio de Sciencoj.) Tr. by Pandiŝo and L. Ko. Chinese title: 不怕鬼的故事. Beijing: Ĉina Esperanto-Ligo.

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