Belief in the supernatural, including all different varieties of spirits, ghosts, and monsters, was a big part of traditional societies and many of the beliefs continue on until today, upheld by superstitions and observances meant to keep the ghastly at bay. Halloween may be a Western holiday, but that doesn’t mean that the Ancient Chinese didn’t get in on the ghost story game as well. The stories range from the funny to the tragic, and offer an insight into what people from years gone by thought of the extraordinary.
The Man Who Sold a Ghost
When Song Dingbo of Nanyang was young, he met a ghost one night as he was walking.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“A ghost, sir. Who are you?” said the ghost.
“A ghost like yourself,” lied Song.
“Where are you going?” asked the ghost.
“To the city.” said Song.
“So am I.” said the ghost.
They went on together, and had walked for a mile or so, when the ghost said, “Walking is most exhausting. Why don’t we take turns carrying each other?”
“A good idea.” said Song.
First, the ghost carried him for some distance. “How heavy you are!” said the ghost. “Are you really a specter?”
“I am a new ghost,” answered Song, “That is why I am heavier than usual.” Then he carried the ghost, who weighed nothing at all. And so they went on, changing several times.
Suddenly Song spoke, “As I am a new ghost, please tell my, what are we ghosts most afraid of?”
“Being spat at by men – that is all”, said the ghost.
They continue on until they came upon a stream. The ghost crossed first, and did so without making a sound. But when Song crossed, he made many loud splashing noises. “Why are you making such a racket?” asked the ghost.
“I only died recently”, answered Song, “and I am not used to fording streams. Please, excuse me.”
As they drew near to the city, Song suddenly seized the ghost and threw him over his shoulder, holding him tightly. The ghost screeched and begged to be put down, but song wouldn’t listen. Instead he headed straight for the market. When he set the ghost down, it turned into a goat! He promptly sold the goat, spitting at it to keep it from changing back. Then he left the market, with 1500 more coins in his pocket.
So the saying spread:
Song Dingbo did better than most –
He made money selling a ghost.
The New Ghost
A new ghost, wasted and haggard, met an old friend who had died some twenty years before, and now looked quite fat and sleek.
“How are you?” asked the friend. “I am so hungry, I can hardly stand it. You must know the ins and outs. Tell me what to do.” said the new ghost.
“That is easy. Frighten men by working wonders, and they will give you food.”
So, the new ghost went to the east side of the village, where he found a family of devout Buddhists. There was a mill to one side of the house, so the ghost began to turn the mill, just as he had done in life. The master of the house said to his children, “Buddha has blessed us by sending this ghost to turn the mill for us.” He brought up a load of wheat and fed it into the mill while the ghost continued to work. When night came, he had ground dozens of bushels of wheat, but still left hungry.
“You lied to me!”” said the new ghost to his friend. His friend simply said, “Try again. Next time you’ll get food.”
So the next day, the new ghost went to the east side of the village, where he found a family of devout Taoists. There was a mortar and pestle by the gate, so the ghost began pounding the pestle like he had done in life. “Yesterday this ghost helped someone else,” said the master of the house, “and today it has come to help me. Let us bring it some grain.” So, the master had the maids collect the grain and bring it to the ghost. Once again, he worked all day, but not a bite did he receive. He went home that night in a fury.
“We are related by marriage,” he said to his old friend, “Why did you lie to me? I have slaved for two whole days, yet still have not received any food.” “You have simply been unlucky,” said the old friend, it is difficult to make an impression on Buddhists and Taoists. If you work wonders in ordinary households, you are bound to be given food.”
The next day, the new ghost went to a house with a bamboo pole at its gate. Going in he saw women eating by one window. There was a white dog in the courtyard, and the ghost picked it up, so that it seemed that the dog was walking on air. The family saw this and they were amazed, claiming they had never seen such a wonder before. They went to consult a fortune teller.
“You have a hungry visitor,” he told them. “All will be well if you kill an animal and sacrifice it in the courtyard with sweetmeats, wine, and rice.” They did this, and the ghost had a hearty meal. After this, the ghost continued to take his friends advice and went on working wonders.