Strange tales from a Chinese studio

Asians are fond of horror stories. Many movies have been produced in the recent decades from Korea (“Train to Busan,” “A Tale of Two Sisters”), Japan (“The Ring,” “The Grudge”), Thailand (“Nang Nak,” “Shutter”), even the Philippines (remember the 15-series “Shake, Rattle and Roll?”).
Back in high school, my classmates would swap Japanese horror comic books. In the Philippine horror fiction culture, we have the classic “Mga Kwento ni Lola Basyang” where we learned about mythical creatures like kapre, tikbalang, manananggal.
Growing up as Tsinoys, we have been exposed to stories about ghosts, demons, immortals, foxes that turn into humans and other supernatural beings from story books and movies (usually shown during Holy Week) about “聊齋誌異 (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio).”
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is a collection of 431 marvel tales written by Pu Songling (蒲松齡 1640-1715).
Pu was a Qing Dynasty Chinese writer (淄川) who used the name Liuxian (留仙) in his work.
He used the form of traditional ghost stories to satirize and describe the injustice of society. He embedded Confucian-styled moral standards and Taoist principles into each parable.
The compilation was not published until after the author’s death. The original version was written in classical Chinese
(文言文) and later translated to Chinese vernacular, English, German and Russian.
Since Aug. 11 marked the start of Ghost Month (鬼月) this year, which ends on Sept. 2, with the 15th day (七月半 Hungry Ghost Festival) on Aug. 25, here are a few abridged “strange” stories from this Chinese literature classic.

Xiaocui is a fox spirit who travel to the human world to express her gratitude.

Xiaocui 小翠
Magistrate Wang had a son, Yuanfeng (王元豐), who was retarded. All the parents in the neighborhood were unwilling to let their daughters marry him.
One day, a mother appeared with her daughters, and agreed to let her daughter marry Yuanfeng without a dowry. The mother said she would return in three days and left behind her beautiful daughter, Xiaocui (小翠).
Several days passed, but there was no sign of the woman. The Wangs asked the daughter where she lived, but all she did was return an empty smile. So, the Wangs selected an auspicious date for their son’s wedding.
Xiaocui did not seem to mind the retarded Yuanfeng. She would joke and do silly things with him.
Living on the same lane was Censor Wang who had always been on bad terms with Magistrate Wang and attempted to undermine him any way he could in the imperial court.
Having found out this situation, Xiaocui one night disguised herself as a well-known ministry official and dressed up two maidservants in green robes. They left the house, and Xiaocui said jokingly, “I want to visit Mr. Wang.”
At Censor Wang’s house, she said angrily, “I want to visit Magistrate Wang, not the censor!” and turned around.
When they got home, the doorkeeper mistakenly thought a distinguished guest had arrived and hastily went in to notify the magistrate. Realizing that it was Xiaocui’s prank, he said angrily, “The censor has been waiting to find an excuse to frame me. Now I’m doomed.”
Xiaocui only smiled and didn’t say a word. It turned out that Censor Wang believed the real ministry official had visited Magistrate Wang and thought they were close friends, so he began to fawn on him instead. Realizing what Xiaocui had done, Magistrate Wang praised her for her cleverness.
A year later, the real ministry official was discharged. A private letter addressed to Magistrate Wang was misdelivered to Censor Wang, who took the chance to blackmail the magistrate for 10,000 pieces of silver. The magistrate was ignorant of the misdelivered letter and refused to pay him.
Censor Wang left in anger. Around the corner he saw a woman pushing Yuanfeng out of the side door. Unmistakably, Yuanfeng was dressed up in the imperial cap and gown. He removed Yuanfeng’s cap and gown and took them home with him.
The same night, Censor Wang filed suit to the emperor accusing the magistrate and his son of mutiny against the throne. The emperor reviewed the evidence, only to discover that the cap was made of sorghum stems and the gown a dirty yellow rag.
Summoning Yuanfeng, the emperor saw that he was retarded, and determined that Censor Wang had falsely accused the magistrate. The emperor declared Censor Wang guilty of libel and sent him to do military service in Yunnan.
The Wangs realized by this time that Xiaocui was not an ordinary person. Xiaocui would only smile and say, “I’m the emperor’s daughter.”
One day in the summer, Yuanfeng was about to take a bath. Xiaocui prepared the bath and helped him into the tub. Feeling the heat and the steam, Yuanfeng tried to escape, but Xiaocui covered the tub with a quilt. When the quilt was removed, Yuanfeng was dead.
Discovering what happened, Mrs. Wang screamed, “You lunatic! You murdered my son!” Xiaocui responded calmly, “It’s just as well; no son at all is better than having a retarded boy.”
Amidst all the confusion, Yuanfeng opened his eyes and let out a moan. He began to recall the past and said it felt like a dream.
From that day on, Yuanfeng was retarded no longer.
Later, Magistrate Wang was accused of witchcraft by members of Censor Wang’s coterie and was discharged.
The Wangs dug out the family treasure, an expensive vase, and were prepared to send it as a gift to the local official.
While Xiaocui was admiring the vase, she dropped and shattered it. Still not over the chagrin of being discharged, and now seeing the vase in pieces, the Wangs flew into a rage.
Tears in her eyes, Xiaocui went to Yuanfeng and said, “The things I have done for your family are more valuable than a vase. Yet, time and again I have been scolded. I have endured all this in silence. After all, the reason I am here is to express my mother’s gratitude. She is actually a fox spirit. Twenty years ago, she was struck by lightning and was cared for by your father. But today with things as they are, how are we to be husband and wife?”
She dashed out the door. Yuanfeng chased after her, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Yuanfeng thought of her day and night. In deep despair, he wept on and on. Even his parents’ sincerest apologies were in vain.
One day two years later, when Yuanfeng was passing by his family’s garden outside of the city, he heard laughter from inside. Climbing up on his saddle and peering over the wall, he found none other than Xiaocui. He scaled the wall and rushed up to her.
Holding their hands and tears welling up their eyes, the couple poured out their stories of longing for each other. Xiaocui’s heart broke seeing the disheveled state that Yuanfeng was in. So, under the pretense of convalescing from illness, Yuanfeng moved to the garden to live with Xiaocui.
A year later, because Xiaocui was unable to bear him a child, she advised Yuanfeng to marry someone else. Yuanfeng refused at first, but Xiaocui was adamant, so Yuanfeng reluctantly agreed to marry the daughter of Minister Zhung. Xiaocui sewed a hand-made wedding dress for the bride-to-be.
On the wedding day, the bride entered the house. Yuanfeng and his family were flabbergasted to find her resembling Xiaocui in every way.
Yuanfeng rushed over to the garden. Xiaocui was nowhere to be found. Left behind was a red handkerchief with a jade pendant tied on it.

Judge Lu is a god who befriended a human and did favors for him.

Judge Lu 陸判
Zhu Erdan (朱爾旦), who lived in Lingyang, was an easy-going, friendly young man who was studying diligently for the local exams. But due to his slow wit, he never attained any academic distinction. Once a studymate dared him to sneak into the Ten Kings Temple and carry out the statue of the menacing-looking judgement god, Judge Lu Pan (陸判). Having successfully completed the dare, Zhu won a feast from his friend, got very drunk and went home.
The next day, while Zhu was having a drink in the pagoda, Judge Lu suddenly appeared in gust of wind. Zhu exclaimed, “I deserve death. I committed a great sacrilege last night. You are here to take my life, aren’t you?” The judgement god smiled and said, “Thanks for your invitation. I was feeling a bit restless tonight, so I came to have a drink with you.”
From then on, Judge Lu visited Zhu frequently. One night in his sleep, Zhu felt a slight pain in his gut. Upon opening his eyes, he was shocked to find Judge Lu rearranging his internal organs and became hysterical. Judge Lu smiled and said, “You don’t write your essays very well. That’s because there is a blind spot in your heart, I’ve replaced it with a good one which I found in the world of the living.”
From then on, Zhu made tremendous progress in his studies and not long afterwards attained first place in the local exam. In autumn, he also passed the national exam.
Zhu took Judge Lu home and said, “My wife isn’t very attractive. Can you do something about it?” Judge Lu smiled and said, “Of course, I will honor your request.”
Several days later, Judge Lu brought back the decapitated head of a beautiful woman, and Zhu brought him to his wife’s chamber. Judge Lu took out a sharp knife and severed her head from her body and put the beautiful woman’s head in its place. After careful realignment, he mended the cut with his fingers and placed the head back on the pillow.
In the morning, Zhu’s wife got up and was about to comb her hair but found herself looking at a stranger in the mirror. Zhu told her the whole story of how Judge Lu had changed her head. Zhu then took a closer look at his wife. Ah, she was like a beauty in a painting!
Local magistrate Wu’s daughter was found murdered and decapitated. He suspected that his daughter had been murdered by Zhu’s black magic, so he filed suit against Zhu, who was captured and interrogated.
But due to lack of evidence, the court couldn’t pass a sentence and released Zhu temporarily. Zhu asked Judge Lu what to do. “It’s quite simple,” said Judge Lu. “Tonight I’ll have the magistrate’s daughter explain everything to him to clear away his suspicion.”
That night, the magistrate had a dream. In it his daughter appeared and said, “I was murdered by Yang Danian  (楊大年) of Suxi. It had nothing to do with Zhu. Zhu was dissatisfied with his wife’s looks, so Judge Lu used my head to replace hers. Therefore my body is dead, but my head is still alive. Please don’t hold anything against Zhu.”
Sure enough, there was a Yang Danian in Suxi. Yang was captured and interrogated, and admitted to the crime of murdering Miss Wu. With the case solved, Magistrate Wu brought gifts to Zhu’s house to apologize and found Zhu’s wife identical to his deceased daughter. He immediately adopted her as his own daughter, and Zhu acknowledged the magistrate as his father-in-law.
Thirty years passed. One night, Judge Lu told Zhu, “Your life is almost over. You have five more days to live.”
“Is there a way out?” Zhu responded.
“One’s life is predetermined. How can I, out of personal favor, save someone who is destined to die? Besides, an intelligent person should feel natural to death. Why do people celebrate life only and fear death?”
Zhu thought that made a lot sense, so he went and prepared for his own funeral.

This story exposes the decadence of the judicial system and political world.

In the Infernal Regions 席方平
Xi Fangping (席方平), a native of Tung-An, spent his life farming and learning. His father was a sincere and honest man, but had been on bad terms with a rich man called Yang (羊) who lived in the same district.
Old Xi became ill several years after the death of Yang. One day, he cried out: “Yang has bribed the devils to beat me.” Then he gave out a terrible scream and died.
Certain that his father had been killed by evil spirits, Xi Fangping determined to go the nether world and redress the injustice. He stopped eating and drinking, and did not speak a single word to anyone. His soul left his body, drifted and floated until it arrived in the nether world.
There, Xi Fangping went in search of a prison, where he saw his father in a yoke looking very miserable. When the old man saw his son, he wept bitterly and told Xi Fangping that the jailers had been bribed to beat him brutally. Xi Fangping cursed the jailers loudly. He wrote a complaint and went to the town government to lodge an accusation.
When Yang heard the news, he bought off all the officers in the town, so the Town God (城隍) paid no attention to Xi Fangping, saying he had no evidence.
Xi Fangping then went to the prefecture government, but his complaint was kept there for half a month and sent back to the Town God.
The Town God beat Xi Fangping and sent him back under escort to his own home.
Xi Fangping freed himself from his guards and ran to the capital of Hell (鄷都森羅殿), and cried loudly in front of the Palace of Hell.
The Town God and prefecture magistrate sent a messenger, who promised to give him a thousand ounces of silver if he would withdraw his complaint, but Xi Fangping refused.
When Xi Fangping entered the Palace Hall, he saw that the Yama (閻王 God of Death) was angry and, for no reason, he was flogged.
Xi Fangping cried: “What have I done wrong?” but the Yama turned a deaf ear to him.
Xi Fangping shouted: “It’s because I haven’t got the money to bribe you!” This infuriated Yama, who ordered Xi Fangping be scalded on a hot iron bed.
Xi Fangping’s flesh was burned until it was black, and the Yama asked him whether he still wished to complain.
His replied: “Yes, my grievance is not yet redressed.”
Enraged, the Yama gave orders to cut Xi Fangping’s body in half with a saw.
Two goblins seized Xi Fangping and began to saw him in half. Unable to stand the pain, Xi Fangping promised the Yama that he would withdraw the complaint.
The Yama ordered the goblins to send him back to earth.
Xi Fangping learned that the nether world was even more unjust than the world of man. Yet, he knew the Second God of Guankou (灌口二郎神) was both wise and just, so why not go to him?
On his way to Guankou, he was set upon by devils and thrown into a cottage where he was reincarnated as a baby.
Xi Fangping cried and cried and would not take any milk, and died three days after his birth.
His soul then went in search of Guankou. He had walked a few dozen miles, when suddenly he saw a group of men on horseback accompanying a god. It was the Second God returning from his tour of inspection. Xi Fangping knelt down before him and told his story.
The Second God questioned Xi Fangping and ordered him to follow them to Guankou and wait outside the government office for trial.
In Guankou, Xi Fangping was called into a courtroom, where he saw the Yama, the prefecture magistrate, the Town God and the goblins in cages. His father and Yang were standing before the Second God.
The Second God announced his judgement: “The Yama and the officers have violated the law and accepted bribes, and they will all be punished.
Yang was rich and heartless. He used his wealth and power to buy off gods, goblins and others to do evil for his own aim. The stink of his money has fouled the whole nether world and filled the Palace of Hell with darkness.
“Therefore, his house shall be searched and his property confiscated and given to Xi Fangping to reward him for his bravery and determination.”
Thus, the wrong done to old Xi and his son was redressed. The Second God ordered the father and son back to earth, and the Xi family lived happily ever after.