Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year 2017 . . . and Some Books in English

Happy New Year to everyone! May it be a joyful, loving time for all who read this and your family members.

I haven't been active for a while as I wrap up my Ph.D. dissertation. However, I'd like to take a moment to share with you seven books that have been instrumental in enabling me to understand and more fully appreciate one of my passions, Chinese folklore, specifically folktales from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Four of these books are by the same author. The folktales I relate on this blog, except for "The Midnight Bus" told to me in English by a premier Chinese folktale/legend scholar, come directly from Chinese sources I have translated. However, the books that follow below have been very helpful in allowing me insight into the psychological/anthropological/sociological backdrops of the tales.

#7  Guilt and Sin in Traditional China (Wolfram Eberhard; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967)

On this list, this is the first of 4 books by the late great German-born American sociologist and sinologist, Wolfram Eberhard. In this very slim volume, Eberhard analyzes the manifestations of guilt and sin in Chinese Buddhist writings and popular literature. He especially focuses on the theme of suicide. Everything he writes about in this book can be found as themes and motifs in folktales, legends, and myths. This book serves as an excellent introduction to traditional Chinese mores.

#6  Studies in Taiwanese Folktales  (W. Eberhard; Taipei: Orient Cultural Service, 1974)

Here, Eberhard provides sociological analyses of several famous folktales that are told in Taiwan. One of them, "Momotaro" (aka, "The Peach Boy") is actually a Japanese tale widely known in Taiwan. The most famous story "Grandaunt Tiger" is given an extended analysis that might interest anyone involved in a social science.

#5  A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols (W. Eberhard; London: Routledge, 1983)

This is a very good basic compendium of symbols that can be found as motifs and metaphors in Chinese folklore.

#4  Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives (C.A.S. Williams; New York: Dover, 1976)

Outlines overlaps in many areas with Eberhard's book on symbols. Williams's articles tend to be a little lengthier than Eberhard's. His book nicely complements Eberhard's later work on symbols.

#3  Gods, Ghosts, & Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village (David K. Jordan; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973)

A masterful introduction to Taiwanese folk religion. It was eye-opening to me when I first read it back in 1976 in Taiwan. It introduced to me the world of ghost brides and temple shamans.  In my view, it is the best book of its kind.

#2  Folktales of China (W. Eberhard; New York: Washington Square Press, 1973)

An excellent survey of folktales, legends, and myths from across China, 79 in all, each appended with notes that provide some sociological/anthropological insight for that particular tale.

#1 Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio (Pu Songling; H.A. Giles, trans. New York: Dover, 1969)

This book, along with Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan, initiated my interest in East Asian folklore. It is an amazing collection of supernatural tales from the Ming Dynasty. Giles's edition is still one of the best. Shape-shifting foxes, ghosts, and early forms of what would be known as urban legends--they're all here.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Bleeding Tree (Baima)

Long ago there was a walled village on the slopes of a mountain. Halfway up this mountain was a crag out of which there grew a tree with black leaves.

Every day this tree would cast its shadow onto the water vat belonging to a family whose home was located at one end of bridge that crossed a reservoir. In the evening the tree blocked the moonlight in another direction, likewise casting a shadow over a different family's water vat.

Both households continually prospered.

This situation was not lost on the rest of the villagers. Those who pondered would think, Both families have their water vats shaded by the tree with black leaves. Both are also very prosperous families. Why, though? What's the connection?

Finally, someone in the village said to some others, "Listen. It's very simple. The tree shrouds only their water vats and no one else's. That's unfair! The tree's clearly biased towards those two households! The tree won't shade our water vats and let us enjoy some of the wealth, so let's cut down that despicable tree that plays favorites!"

This angry man and his hangers-on went up the slope of the mountain and prepared to chop the tree down. All day long, they took turns hacking away at the tree but to no avail. The tree stood as sturdy as ever. They called it a day and headed back home.

That night, one of those who had tried to cut the tree down had a vivid dream. In the dream, the tree with black leaves spoke to him, saying, "Those fellows don't realize how close they really came to cutting me down. They also don't know I'm not afraid of cutting or chopping. I'm only afraid of coming and going."

The next day this man told the others who wished to cut down the tree what the tree had said in his dream.

Hearing the contents of the dream, one of the men said, "The tree said it doesn't fear cutting or chopping, just 'coming and going.' 'Coming and going . . .' That can mean only one thing: The tree is afraid of sawing!"

The men located a saw and rushed up the mountain to finish the job. They sawed down the tree easily enough.

Once the tree with black leaves had been cut down, out from the stump flowed blood . . .

A terrible mistake had been made, but of course now it was too late.

Within a few days, all the men who had participated in sawing the tree down died one by one from illness. The two families who had enjoyed prosperity from the tree's shadows now entered into financial decline. The crag from which the tree had grown split in two large formations leaning precariously over the village. The villagers, cursing the men who had sawed the tree, begged the rock for forgiveness and performed rites at the scene to protect the village.

The two rocks did not roll down and are still up there. It is said that if one stands on the road outside the village, one can spot those two separate crags perched above.

陇南白马人民俗文化研究 [Studies in the Folklore of the Baima People of Longnan]; Lanzhou: Gansu Renmin Chubanshe, 2012.

The Baima, or Baima Tibetans, are spread out through Gansu (the location of Longnan) and Sichuan Provinces. They originally didn't possess their own writing system. They preserve an animist and totemic religious system with influences from the ancient Tibetan Bon religion. 白馬人 - 维基百科,自由的百科全书Baima people - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The "tree with black leaves" may be the goldenrain, or Koelreuteria paniculata, native to the Far East and introduced to North America in the 18th century. Its Chinese name is luan [栾树], but it's also known as "the tree with black leaves." 

Motifs: cC51.2.2, "Tabu: Cutting sacred tree"; D950, "Magic tree"; *D1316.5, "Magic speaking tree betrays secret"; D1316.5.1, "Voice comes forth from tree, revealing truth"; F811.20, "Bleeding tree"; Q301, "Jealousy punished." 

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Two Brothers and the Chinless Ghost (Han)

Two brothers lived up on Bear Ear Mountain, where they had made themselves some sort of makeshift home. There, they grew melons, and they were quite good at it. On the seventh month of every year, people would journey from far and wide up the mountain to buy and to gorge themselves on the luscious melons.

Now, not far from the brothers' melon patch was a hillock of unattended tombs, and this place became the source of all the trouble that was to occur. Every night this forsaken area would be the scene of ghostly activities. Come sundown, ghost fires, will-o-the-wisps, would flock together and flit about, scaring the wits out of anyone nearby, discouraging folks from approaching the melon patch in the day time.

The two brothers were aware of this but continued their chores as diligently as ever, paying little mind to the haunted hillock.

One night a chinless ghost carrying a lantern in one hand and a brass gong in the other came to the fence of the melon patch while the brothers were still there.

Banging the gong, the chinless ghost sang: "My chops! My chops! Bang! Bang! Let me me have some melons!"

The older brother said not a word.

The young brother said, "Well, your big tooth wants to chomp and your little tooth wants to chomp."

The chinless ghost then made nightly visits to the melon patch, banging his gong and chanting his strange song. The brothers watched him very closely, concerned that their melons not be stolen but otherwise unbothered by the presence of the ghost. Night after night, though, the ghost would come but never tried to take a melon.

This went on continuously for many nights, starting just after sundown. The ghost's nocturnal visits began to take its toll on the brothers. They now became disturbed by all this, waiting for the next shoe to drop. They decided to capture this ghost and give him a taste of his own medicine.

They waited until they were ready to do something about this annoyance. The night for action finally came. The brothers stood and waited . . .

The sun had set, and as expected the brothers soon heard the telltale song, "My chops! My chops! Bang! Bang! Let me have some melons!"

The chinless ghost, banging his gong, came into the view.

The two brothers immediately sprang towards the ghost. The ghost turned tail and fled before them. As fast as the brothers ran, they were at first no match for the ghost. When the brothers slowed down, the ghost, as if taunting them, slowed down to match their pace. When the brothers stopped and then resumed running after the ghost, the ghost likewise stopped and began to run when the brothers did. The brothers eventually got within four or five paces of the ghost, but all the running finally got to them and they stopped their pursuit.

The ghost slipped away, and the boys called it a night. They went back to their shed.

The next night, they tried something different.

The older boy had his younger brother go down the mountain to keep watch.

Down the mountain, the younger brother ran into an old fellow and they conversed, with the younger brother telling the old man about their attempt to catch the ghost.

"So, you want to catch this ghost, eh? Easy!" said the old fellow. "Here's what you and your brother do. Tie your shoes upside down under your feet . . . "


"Just hear me out," the old man continued. "Also, in your right hands, carry a branch from a peach tree. In your left hands, carry a red string. When the ghost appears, go after him. Trust me. Do all this and you'll catch him, all right. Then beat him with the branches. Now listen--this is very important. After you get hold of him and punish him, notice what's on the ground near and around him. This is where the string comes in handy."

The young brother thanked the old man and went back up the mountain. He told his older brother what the old man had said. They both agreed to give the old man's plan a try.

Late that afternoon, they were ready, with shoes tied upside down and all.

Just after twilight the chinless ghost came as if on cue.

As before the two brothers, each carrying a peach tree branch in one hand and red string in the other, sprang forward to catch him with their shoes tied to their feet in this ridiculous manner.

Surprise of surprises, the ghost could now barely move. With the two boys running like hoof-less ponies, the ghost himself turned but only ended up running as if weighted down with lead pants. He hadn't gotten very far when the two boys were able to reach him and beat him soundly with the tree branches.

"Oooh! Ahh!" yelped the ghost, thereupon vanishing before their eyes.

It was then the two boys noticed some objects littered on the ground near where the chinless ghost had been. They looked closely--persimmons.

"Persimmons? In the seventh month?" The older brother shook his head. He knew this couldn't be right.

The two brothers strung the persimmons on the lengths of string they had carried and took them home. They then discovered that in the day, the persimmons remained persimmons, but at night they turned into small shining lanterns.

Three days passed.

Then, on the evening of the fourth day, there appeared a whole host of chinless ghosts, each banging a gong and chanting with each step, "My chops! My chops! Bang! Bang! Return our lanterns to us! Otherwise, we eat up all the melons!"

Just as the chinless ghosts snatched up the strings of lanterns, the two brothers set out after them. The ghosts turned and fled with their lanterns, the brothers right on their heels. They ran and ran, and chased the ghosts all the way down to the edge of Black Dragon Pond, where--Katong!--the chinless ghosts, one by one, jumped into the dark water.

From that time on, there were no more ghostly visitations at the melon patch. The troop of chinless ghosts had been permanently scattered!

民间文学; [Folk Literature]; Li Munan, et al., NP: Green Apple Data Center, 2006.

Ghosts without chins are a staple in oral ghost literature in China. Why, though? Perhaps the chinless feature accentuates the ghost's creepy otherworldliness; in addition, the loss of the jaw bone signifies an entity that will soon be a skeleton. (That fewer things are deader than a skeleton may be the thinking here.) The seventh month of the lunar calendar is associated with the appearance of ghosts. Hence, it's popularly known as "Ghost Month" [鬼月], a time when unnecessary travel is curtailed. Fresh persimmons in July would be like blooming roses on a cold winter's day; therefore, something to avoid. An interesting detail in the story is the counterintuitive plan of wearing shoes upside down on the feet in order to capture the ghost. We see successful ideas that contradict common sense often in world folklore, suggesting that sometimes we need to think outside the box, to do something radically different to solve an impasse. It works in folktales and sometimes in real life!

Motifs: E402.1.1.3, "Ghost cries and screams"; E402.1.1.4, "Ghost sings"; E554, "Ghost plays musical instrument"'; E999.7, "Ghost carries a lantern"; F91, "Will-o'-the-Wisp."