Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Old Coffin Maker -- the Vanishing Hitchhiker in Old China (Han)

The following purports to be an old village legend from China:

There once was a coffin maker in town, Old Cui. Owing to his reputation of being upright and possessing a good disposition, he did well and lived a comfortable life as the majority of villagers turned to him for his skills when it was their time of need.

There came a time when there was an increase in deaths in the town. Old Cui had mixed feelings about this; on one hand, he relished doing more business; on the other hand, he was distressed that among the departed were those he had known for many years.

This one particular night, he was staying late at the shop, working on coffins. He decided to call it a night and head home early for the first time in many nights. He was hungry and didn't want to keep his wife waiting and waiting for him to get home.

So off into the night he went, heading north from the village to his home near the mountains, the moon helping to light the way. There was an old saying he was no doubt aware of--"Thieves are out on bright moonlit nights"--so he picked up his step. He was alone on the road, all the more reason for him to hasten.

Up ahead on the lonely road, he spotted a dark silhouette in the near distance--a person.

He puffed up his chest and continued towards the person. Maybe a traveling companion till I get home, he thought to comfort himself.

He soon saw that the figure was no other than a young woman sitting on a rock, seemingly resting one of her feet. He could see that she wearing a short red jacket and flowery pants.

"Young woman, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at home?" he asked.

"Oh, Master Cui," she replied, "I was just on my way home from doing some chores for my elder brother's wife when I sprained my ankle. I can't go on. I'm going to rest here until it's daylight. Maybe my ankle will be better by then."

"No, no, that won't do," said Old Cui. Bending over a bit, he said, "Here, hop onto my back. I'll take you home," intending to carry her home, piggyback.

The girl gladly got onto his back, and told Old Cui where she lived.

As they continued into the night, they chatted about this and that. Old Cui noted that the girl didn't seem very heavy. As he continued walking with her on his back, though, she seemed to get heavier and heavier by the moment.

Soon, poor Old Cui was gnashing his teeth in discomfort, thinking, What would my friends say if they saw how difficult it is for me to carry this mere girl? Why, they'd laugh their heads off . . . 

So, he put her increasing heaviness out of his mind and pushed on.

Soon, the lights of the girl's home came into view.

Whew . . . finally . . . thought Old Cui.

Balancing the girl on his back with one hand, he knocked on the door of his house with the other hand.

Before long, a woman opened the door. She gaped at Old Cui and said, "What in the world do you think you're doing?"

"What . . . What do you mean?" asked Old Cui.

"Are you that bored with life? What do you mean by carrying coffin planks to my house?"

"Madam, please! I've escorted this young woman to your home because she had twisted--"

"At midnight you're going to persist with this utter nonsense? Take a look for yourself what you have been carrying around!"

He squatted down and let the weight fall from his back. Sure enough, two heavy coffin planks fell to the ground. Old Cui was now bathed in cold sweat. The only thing he could do was recount from beginning to end what had happened.

The woman helped Old Cui carry the planks to the garden. She then went inside to get some incense, funeral money, and food. Then, she placed the food, money and incense on the planks, lighting the incense. There, they both prayed . . .

The next day, Old Cui and some assistants returned to the same area. They discovered not far from the home was a neglected tomb missing a tombstone. The tomb itself had apparently been broken into, and the coffin lid was missing. Inside the rotted remains of the coffin lay a decayed, maggot-infested body. The frayed, torn red jacket was unmistakable, though . . .

Old Cui had the tomb reconstructed, providing the remains of the girl a brand-new coffin and tombstone. The tombstone read: "The Goddess in Red."

It is said that later, even after Old Cui's son had made a name for himself and had become a mandarin, the whole family would still pay a visit to the young woman's grave once a year.

99 of the Rural Citizen's Most Worthwhile Supernatural Stories to Read [农民朋友最值得一读的99个神鬼故事]; Huang He, ed. Nanchang: Jiangxi Jiaoyou Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 79-81. 

This above book with the very odd title contains 99 ancient and "modern" ghost stories. This particular story does not mention the province where the story took place or even the year. 

It does share some motifs in common with the Vanishing Hitchhiker: a kind older man picks up (here, literally) a stranded girl old enough at least to be his daughter, taking her to a destination, upon which she has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind some telltale trace of herself. Interestingly, the girl knows Old Cui's name, a detail that doesn't appear in the familiar American version of the story. Perhaps this is not so strange. Old Cui may have been one in a long line of coffin makers in that town, something a ghost might know. 

The Vanishing Hitchhiker has a motif number all to itself: E332.3.3.1, including the motifs of riding in a car, leaving behind drops of rainwater, and the revelation that the ghost is one of a girl who had been killed in a car accident and has been trying to return home at least yearly. Otherwise, we also have the following motifs:*E262, "Ghost rides a man's back"; E332, "Non-malevolent road ghost(s)"; E332.2, "Person meets ghost on the road"; and cE332.3, "Ghost on road asks traveler for a ride." The latter is modified because it is the old man who offers the ride to the girl without her asking.

One of my students, I wish I could remember who that was to credit him or her, said that the Western subtext of this tale, E332.3.3.1, reflects the longing for that which cannot be regained, at least not in this life, for that which is now sadly gone forever. It seems to me the Chinese version reflects instead the need to be remembered and appreciated, the need to be venerated. In folklore and popular belief, the ancestors certainly remind their descendants in less than gentle ways whenever they feel forgotten or neglected.