A Chinese Ghost Story From Canton

Abstract: When we were young my mother often regaled us (My sister, me and my younger brother) with ghost stories from Guangzhou, known as Canton to the Westerners previously.  She is 91, going to 92 in mid-May this year. So to engage her, I often asked her to recount all these ghost stories. This is one of them.

A Scholar going for the Imperial Exam

Liu Chun knew that he would die if he could not find a shelter soon.

The weather had changed drastically in the last watch hour of weakening daylight. The wind was picking up speed. Through the vast expense of sleeting snow and the blinding bluish white landscape under the full moon, he could not see any settlement. He held onto the hope of seeing a pair of white lanterns that signified the presence of an Inn, but there was none. In this weather, who would have lit the lanterns anyway, he thought morosely.

It would only be a short time when the full gale of a blizzard snow storm would be upon him.

Liu Chun was an eminent scholar from a village north of Canton. He had passed all the local exams in his own county and now he was on his way to the Imperial Capital, Peking, the all-powerful seat of the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, for the final Imperial Exam. He would bring tremendous glory and honour to his family if he passed the final stage of the Imperial Exam and would later be conferred an official governmental position of being a Magistrate in the Yamen, the court of the Mandarin.

He had been traveling by foot for almost 3 moons, and he estimated that he might need another 1 moon to reach the Imperial Capital. He had even passed through the periphery of the famed Great Wall, where the wall was to keep the barbarians out.

All his possession was a sling bag that contained two patch-mended clothing, another pair of black thick cotton shoes, two brushes for calligraphy writing, a dried up gourd containing water, some yellowish scroll paper for composing poetry and an ink pot, a few tattered books, a dog-beating pole and some other non-valuable personal items.

Then it was by providence that he happened to glance in the direction where an eddy current was twirling around and fluffy snow was spinning like a small well-formed whirlwind called dust devil. The swirling snow revealed a small crag jutting out, its brownish shale partially visible against the stark blue whiteness of the land. It was a mount and the ascent though was not steep, was not too far away from where he stood. He made haste and struggled through the thick snow, each footstep being increasingly difficult to proceed. Perhaps the crag may give him some temporary shelter before the teeth of the storm bit.

As he was getting near the crag, a strange phenomenon happened. The wind suddenly abated, though flakes of snow were still drizzling down lightly. The scenery was surreal and breath-taking, all was calm and quiet. Nestled behind the crag was a small valley and a distant away was a forest of trees, burdened with snow.

In the vast expanse of the snow laden land, he could not believe his eyes when he saw an Inn.  There was two translucent white lanterns hanging on a tall pole. Strange as it might be, the two lanterns were lit. It was as if there was an inner calling for him to be drawn to this Inn.

Amitabha Buddha! He muttered a prayer to himself, though he was not really a devoted Buddhist, but at such times he would believe that only divine intervention by the merciful Buddha would be his salvation.

He was almost at his tether’s end when he reached the entrance. He knocked hard on the door brass knobs.

“Go away, vagabond. We don’t have any more rooms to let.” An elderly man said gravely as the creaky door was suddenly flunked open.  He was holding an oil lamp to his face giving Liu Chun a fright. Framed against the dim light from the lamp, the old man looked like a ghostly figure, with ragged and untidy white beard, and his face chiselled with worried lines.

“O’ Inn Keeper, outside a storm is brewing, I will be frozen to death if left outside,” Liu Chun pleaded, struggling against the bitter cold and gritting his teeth. “Can you perhaps let me stay in-door, even if there is no room for me to put up the night.”

“We do not allow guests to stay in-door.” The old man was somewhat hesitating as he stared at the scholar, the light from the oil lamp flickered and reflected in his grey eyes.

“I am a scholar on the way to the Imperial Capital to take the Imperial exam. Tomorrow morning I will be long gone.” Liu Chun said confidently. He thought that pleading for mercy would not work as there were too many vagabonds around looking for free shelter, but people would look kindly on scholars going for Imperial Exam. One day, a scholar might just passed his exam and be elevated to be a high official Mandarin in the Yamen.

“There may be a room upstairs. But it has not been occupied for more than two years.” The elderly man repented and continued to stare at Liu Chun with unabated eyes.

“It is haunted.” The elderly man said with an expressionless face.

“I take it. How much do I have to pay you for a night stay?” Liu Chun was relieved that there was still an available room. He thought, it was better to take a chance with any ghosts than to be frozen to death.

“You can stay for free for a night. But the room may be full of cobwebs and dust as nobody has entered the room since a scholar committed suicide there.

“But I have to warn you, don’t touch the rope at the far end near the window ledge. It’s evil. That was where the scholar hang himself.

“There were two swordsmen who stayed there before and went mad the next day. They might have fought a hundred enemies, but when face with a ghost they lost their mind. From then on we lock up the room.”  The elderly man said.

“I insist to pay you for the room but it would only be a small sum.” Liu Chun was too tired to enquire further. He dug into his threadbare wide sleeve and produced a small lump of silver.

“Thank you, Inn Keeper, for giving me accommodation. I appreciate your kindness.” The scholar gave a slight bow.

The elderly man took the silver lump and said, “I will send the page boy over with a charcoal stove so you can keep warm.  And some hot dumplings too.” The elderly man turned to walk to the nearest long table and lit another lamp for Liu Chun.

“Wei! You have not tell me which room should I go?” The scholar enquired.

“You go upstairs. You won’t miss the room.” The elderly man said as he walked away, the shadows danced and flickered about, then he vanished into the darkness.

Liu Chun, with the oil lamp on his right hand and his sling bag over his shoulder, he walked up the stairs with the aid of his dog-beating pole. He passed several rooms, all was quiet.  Then he saw it.  It was at the far end of the corridor, there was a charcoal stove with burning embers of coal, a thick blanket and two bamboo steamer baskets with dumplings being laid at the entrance.  The Inn Keeper was even kind enough to leave a small jar of rice wine.

All over the door it was plastered with Taoist amulets. He mused, were these amulets meant to keep the ‘ghost’ inside or were it meant to keep people away.

As he opened the door, he detected a passing faint fragrance of incense. Suddenly he heard a slight motion and in the whitish moon light that filtered into the room, he thought he saw a shadow disappearing into the wooden wall.  He brushed away his thought instantly, he was too exhausted from the past months’ ordeal of traveling. Perhaps he was starting to imagine things because of what the elderly man said to him about this room being haunted.

Playing the lamp around the small spartan room, he noticed that it was quite clean, contrary to what the elderly man said. There were no cobwebs nor any motes of dust. This gave him some shivers. He had heard that when a room was too tidy and clean and it had not been occupied for some time, then it might indicate the presence of some supernatural beings.

He was too drained to give it much thought. He placed the oil lamp on the bamboo table and the stove on the floor. He had his first meal of steamed buns for the day. He ate up the buns in quick bites after which he sipped the rice wine.

He noticed that strong winds were coming back again. The louvre on the bamboo window was rattling and the wind caused an eerie shrieking sound. Fatigue overcame him, he was no longer hungry and the warm glow of the rice wine in his stomach made him even more sleepy.  The stove with the still burning embers gave him the warmth he needed

Instead of retiring to the bed, he slumped over the table top and slept away.

It was a deep slumber with no dreams.

He heard it first. It was a haunting voice, deep guttural cry, like someone who was being tortured with a thousand cuts to the body or someone who had met death unceremoniously or someone being murdered mercilessly. The undulating voice was drifting through the whole room, at times it was a high pitch piercing male voice, at times it was just silence, and then the crescendo built up again. He was drifting in and out of his slumber.

A draft of cold wind on his back woke him up with a jot. The oil lamp flickered and died off and a whiff of smoke curled up. The room was now filled with a silvery bluish soft glow from the moonlight that permeated through the uneven louvre of the window panes.

He looked up. He saw the rope, with a loop at the tail end and tied onto the main beam, swaying slightly and silhouetted against the moonlight. Liu Chun was now shivering with fear. He felt cold. He took a small twig and lit up the oil lamp from the still burning coals.

He gripped the blanket tighter to his body.  He should have taken the yellow rice paper Taoist talisman which his mother gave him when he left Canton. His mother had prayed for nearly a month at the Guan Yin temple and in supplication to the chief Abbot, she requested that a Taoist talisman be granted to protect him from all evil spirits. At that time, he felt that he didn’t need it as he was a righteous man who had not done any harm to anybody. 

The deep haunting voice came again. He was now quite fully awake. Then he remembered some old wives tales of staying in a haunted house. He took off his almost worn out black cotton shoes and instead of placing the two together side by side, front to front and heel to heel, he arranged one of the shoe the other way, one shoe front with the other heel. This way, it was said that it resembled a yin-yang symbol, much like the ‘jiao-bei’ two blocks when one was doing a ‘kau-cim’ in a temple and a yes divine answer would be one face up and one face down. Ghost or evil spirits were always afraid of the Yin-Yang symbol in the centre of the Ba-Gua or Eight Trigrams.

The eerie voice faded away immediately.   

Liu Chun was quite relieved that this simple trick could work. Slowly, he drifted off, as his neck muscles relaxed, he nodded his head several times in a slumber.

Just as he was dozing off, the eerie haunting voice came again. This time it was stronger, its high piecing scream was maddening, then silence, then it came on even stronger. Instead of being scared out of his wits, he was by now very agitated with the cacophony. His head was throbbing with pulsating pain. He would yell back.

“Whoever you are, you listen!” Liu Chun screamed aloud.

“I am on the earthly Yang plane and you are on the ethereal Yin plane. And the two shall not cross each. I am not trespassing into your space as I paid the rental and this is my place for the night. Now, go away and leave me in peace.” He said defiantly, hoping that the ghost would just disappear when he showed that he was not afraid.

The pitch of the haunting voice grew, the ‘ghost’ was getting more restless and more aggressive. He saw a floating white image fluttering by, like a piece of white satin cloth blowing and suspending in the wind. Was he hallucinating? He thought. Abruptly, Liu Chun calmed down. He must use his wit to defy this ghost. Just as the swordsmen who went mad trying to fight the ghost with their swords, he would not do any losing battles when he and the ghost were in different worlds.

From all the ghost stories he had heard in the village where he grew up, he knew that a ghost would transform itself instantaneously, from a beautiful and bewitching woman to a fiery fox spirit, or some hideous creatures. All these transformations were meant to scare the earthly man. And that was the sole reason why the swordsmen went berserk.

He shut his eyes tight. Further, he took out a small black cloth and tied it across his eyes. Now, as he was blindfolded, even an involuntary action of opening his eyes, he would still not be able to see anything in the room.

His jarred nerves were beginning to calm down. He remembered an old adage might have a ring of truth, that a man had 3 marks of fear for a ghost while a ghost had 7 marks of fear for a man. He just had to sit it out and do nothing and, to await the crow of a rooster, which would herald the dawn and the embrace of the Yang element.

Liu Chun slumped his head over the table top. The uncanny voice came again. He did not move. He still kept his eyes shut, even with the blindfold on. He listened intently. This time the voice was quite soft, undulating, the ghost was somewhat like crying, sobbing in between words he was trying to speak. And it was repetitive, over and over again.

Liu Chun focused on the source of the voice. Perhaps it was emanating from the hanging rope nearby, perhaps the ghost might be standing in front of him. He listened some more, what fear that was in his palpitating heart was now replaced with an intense concentration in its centre.  He was listening with his heart.

Then he knew it!

The ghost was intoning a poetry. The first sentence seemed blur, hazy and disjointed. Liu Chun was trying to catch the sentence word for word. The second phrase was also incoherent, it was like the ramblings of a drunken man. The two phrases kept on repeating itself.

Then he got it!

By now, Liu Chun knew that the ghost was reciting a poetry by Zhang Zai, a philosopher in the 13th century. The stanza consisted of 4 phrases, but why was the ghost kept on repeating only the first two phrases.  The tone of the ghost was somewhat subdued now. At times the recital was quite clear, at time it was a faraway echo. The voice kept on repeating the first two phrases on the 4-phrase stanza poetry.

Epiphany! Liu Chun immediately understood. The ghost might have forgotten the last two phrases of the stanza and failed his Imperial Exam.

Liu Chun sprang into action. He removed his blindfold, and set the ink pot on the table top. Grinding the black ink into a melt with the little wine that was still left in the jar, he took up his brush.

In the dimness of the candlelight, he wrote the first two phrases of the stanza in broad strokes onto the yellow paper as recited by the ghost. He read it aloud. There was silence, as if the ghost was listening now.

He proceeded to write the 3rd phrase of the stanza. Then he stood up and admired his work. He read aloud the three phrases in sequence.

He felt the palpable silence that ensued. He re-read the stanza again. This time he heard an echo, the ghost was repeating all of the 3 phrases of the stanza.

He then continued to write the 4th phrase of the stanza onto the same paper. He read aloud the complete stanza.

The echo that followed was quite distinct now. The ghost was reciting the whole stanza in a slow mellifluous voice. The ghost repeated another reading.

Liu Chun held up the yellow paper. He looked up and saw a fleeting white shadow.

“Go to where you belong. Have a safe journey.” Liu Chun said aloud, it was a fond farewell to a ghost trapped for near eternity in this confined space that he did not belong, all for the want of an incomplete stanza.

Then it disappeared.

The night was quiet now. Even the rustle of the wind had stopped. The moon shone over the hanging rope and when Liu Chun glanced at it, he felt at peace with it.

Liu Chun had a fitful sleep on his bed. When he awoke the sun was lancing its weak oblique rays into the room, as it was still deep in winter. He gathered his belongings and walked downstairs.

The Inn Keeper was waiting for him with a table laid with dishes of dumplings and a few dishes of meat and vegetables sumptuous delights. There was a small jar of rice wine too. Somehow, the Inn Keeper knew that Liu Chun had gotten rid of the ghost, and he was puzzled. This was a scholar, not some high Taoist priest specializing in the entrapment of any wayward ghost. He was wondering whether the ghost was captured inside the gourd hanging beside the waist of Liu Chun. 

Before the Inn Keeper could raise a question, Liu Chun said, “The ghost has left peacefully of its own accord. There will be no further disturbance. You do not have to remove the hanging rope. It can be a reminder that not all ghost has evil intend.”

Liu Chun ate his fill.  He thanked the Inn Keeper profusely for his hospitality. With both hands clasp, he bowed to the Inn Keeper.

The air was crisp with a freshness from last night snow fall. Liu Chun felt good. He continued his journey to the Imperial Capital with a heart filled with joy.

Note: “Ghost Story Part II: Mystery solved.” There will be a final sequel to the above post. Stay tune.

The above poetry by Zhang Cai was researched and given to me by a close friend of mine from Singapore, one Mr WH Chew. The English translation is also done by him. He is an architect and a Chinese scholar.

Image credit: wikipedei.com, tutormandarin.net, hongkongtripguide.com, tinyatdragon.com,

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    1. Dear Arthur

      I have just discovered your website about Jadeite. I have learned so much from your knowledge and expertise. I wish you would continue to write about jade.

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