Monday, March 9, 2015

Chinese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn

I borrowed this book thinking it was going to be scary (from the cover, and experience reading True Singapore Ghost Stories), and Chinese, but it turned out to be decidedly non-scary, and not that Chinese after all. This is what I get for not looking at the author name when picking stories.

Chinese Ghost Stories is actually Lafcadio Hearn's version of certain Chinese legends (which according to him are actually Chinese), written before he came to Asia. I think. That's what the introduction said anyway. And since it's written in 1886, according to the preface, the language is very flowery, and does not remind me of Chinese in any way.

There are six stories in this book, and I think my favourites were the first few. The last few books, especially the last two - The Tradition of the Tea Plant and The Tale of the Porcelain God, were rather confusing and uninteresting to me. Anyway, a short rundown of each book:

The Soul of the Great Bell: I liked this story. It's about filial piety, and rather sad, thought completely not scary. It's about sacrifice and making a huge bell with metals that don't mix; if I say anymore, I'll give away the entire story.

The Story of Ming Yi and The Story of Zhi Nu: These are both love stories of humans with the not-quite human. It's a bit like Madam White Snake, but short and perhaps not as famous in Chinese lore.

The Return of Yan Zhenjing: This is about loyalty to country. Actually a ghost story (the others just involved death or non-humans, and not actually ghosts), but again, not scary.

The Tradition of the Tea Plant: This is a retelling of the legend of how tea came to be, which is a monk cutting his eyelids off and throwing them to the ground, from which the tea leaf appears. There's a love story in here, which I don't get, and where is the ghost?

The Tale of the Porcelain God: I did not get this. It's a bit like the The Soul of the Great Bell, but less clearly written. I kinda skipped the first three or four pages, which were lists of porcelains.

The glossary too, is suspect. I skimmed through it, but I saw an entry which said:
"JIA - "House"; but especially the house of the dead - a tomb"
Now, I'm just guessing, but the character is probably 家 (jia). It just means house, and I've never heard it being used as a house of the dead, much less "especially" used as the house of the dead. I asked my family, and the closest we got was that according to my grandma, people in Singapore in the past (when she was young) didn't really have places to live, so some people lived above the cemeteries and used tombstones as tables. But the definition after the semi-colon seems to be very off.

In the author's defence, this was written before he went to Asia. He did eventually make it to Japan, marry a Japanese girl and write a lot of famous ghost stories. I will probably give them a go, if I come across them, though after this experience,  I can't say that I'll intentionally seek them out.

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