This week it has been Halloween in the UK. The origins of Halloween are seasonal. It is a festival that marks the end of summer and the coming of winter. It is also a liminal time, when the divide between the material world and the spiritual world grows thin and porous. It is a time when the ghosts, goblins and ghouls of our fearful imaginations come out of the darkness into shared stories around the protecting flames of a hearth fire.
There is no direct equivalent to Halloween in China. However there is a popular folk imagination which is just as full of the wierd and the wonderful. The Dao philosophy in China has two strands . One is a tradition of wisdom, best understood through the ‘Daodejing’ the writings attributed to Laozi. The second is a rich collection of ancient beliefs – animism, mysticism and the occult.
Once, climbing a mountain with a friend, I was amazed to see a carefully constructed shrine and inside a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of ‘baijiu’, the powerful white alcohol of China. ‘Are they there in case someone gets lost on the mountain?’ I asked. ‘No humans should touch them,’ I was told, ‘They belong to the mountain spirits.’
If you want to get a flavour of Chinese ghost and horror stories this Halloween I would recommend you to the book ‘Strange Tales of Laozhai’ or as it’s known by a slightly different title ‘Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio’. The author of these tales is called Pu Songling. He lived from 1640 to 1715, the time of the Qing Dynasty in China.
Pu Songling was born into a poor merchant family and struggled to pass the imperial examination system and gain financial security all his life, without success. His loss was our gain, because he devoted several decades of his life to collecting and retelling in charming Classical Chinese, over 500 accounts and tales, many of them with spooky supernatural themes.
For a detailed introduction to the book, I would recommend you to the excellent ‘Great Books of China’ by Frances Wood. I’ll offer a more humble flavour of the collection.
What I admire about these stories is exactly the quality I talked about in Halloween, the thin, porous dividing line between the natural and supernatural worlds. In a story called ‘The Taoist Priest of Mount Lao’, the main character Wang is dumbfounded when the priest makes an ordinary piece of paper into a dazzling moon, which is also a portal for supernatural beings to cross over. Wang begs to be taught the secrets of opening doors between worlds only to be brought crashing down to Earth when he charges at a wall believing he too can cross over, only to be left with a sore head when the physicality of the wall stands in his way.
Perhaps the most famous of the tales, and the most appropriate for Halloween, is called ‘Painted Skin’. We can appreciate this story in movie form. It has been brought to the screen many times, but the most recent version was made in 2008 by the director Gordon Chan. It’s a credible film in its own right, but it substituted the horror of the original story for a strong romantic element. However the same idea is at the heart of both versions, the thinness of human skin and how easily it can hide horror. I won’t spoil the effect of reading or watching for yourself, but suffice to say that the tale is a warning for anyone, especially a bookish scholar, who doesn’t believe that a beautiful exterior might not be disguising the vilest of monsters within.
I’ll finish at the beginning – with the poetic Preface that Songling wrote for his work:
“Those who know me
Are in the green grove,
At the dark frontier.”
As both Halloween and ‘Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio’ show, the human imagination seems to be haunted by the need to visit and revisit, time after time, this ‘dark frontier’.