Vol 1, Issue 4 REVEALING THE HEART OF ASIAN CINEMA August - September, 2000
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Ghost Seductress Lures Men to Their Death

Ghosts and Fox Spirits

Supernatural Literature in China

Pu Songling's Liaozhai Zhiyi



Strange Movies from a Chinese Studio

This article is in five parts. This is part one. To view one of the other parts, click on the numbers below.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Supernatural Literature in China

For as long as there has been darkness and sounds in the night people have known fear at what lay beyond the light of the campfire. For as long as there has been death, people have wondered what awaits them on the other side. Common beliefs about these things tied communities together, some of it becoming religion, evolving from primitive animism to the most refined of beliefs. Some people have experiences which may in some way confirm their belief, some may call these experiences miracles. The stories are told and re-told, and eventually come together in a great body of work which describes the supernatural beliefs of a people in great detail: where one story may leave out an element, another will certainly include it. Tales are told from one person to another, from father to son, from one village to another. Eventually some of these are written down, and remembered. Most, are forgotten to history forever. It is the same in China as anywhere else in the world. It is the tales that have survived, invented, copied, or recorded by scholars throughout the history of China, that concern us here.

The earliest surviving collections of supernatural tales were written from the third century through the sixth A.D. These collections are crude, compared to later accounts, and serve simply to record miraculous occurances that have been witnessed or told of to the writer. The tales deal with immortals, local gods, ghosts, and animal spirits, characters and situations that would be returned to again and again throughout the development of supernatural literature in China.

For example, the tale "Huang Yuan" tells of one Huang Yuan, who is led by a dog into a cave which he discovers to be inhabited by goddesses. He marries one, remaining for a few days. Then every year, on the first day of the third month, he would purify himself and his bride would appear from the clouds. We learn nothing about who this man is, what he does for a living, where he goes, etc. Often, these early tales are only a shadow of a story, as if the mere mention of an immortal or ghost in a tale would suffice to excite an audience and bring them a sense of wonder. It would not be until the seventh century and the T'ang Dynasty that the supernatural tale became an art in itself.

During the T'ang Dynasty, a new style of literary form developed, the Chuanqi tale. These tales were individual compositions, at first circulated only among friends, as vehicles displaying the strength of a writer's talents. As such, the tales became much more lively, more elaborate, and more exciting than those that came before. Supernatural occurances were woven into stories, which had a definite beginning, middle, and end, and sometimes included a moral. The only subject of greater interest to T'ang Dynasty writers was Love, but sometimes this too could be easily combined in a tale of the supernatural.

By the ninth century A.D., Chuanqi tales were being collected into books and so gained a wider audience. The subjects were largely the same as the earlier stories, dealing as they did with ghosts, gods, Taoist immortals, and animal spirits. They still maintained the sense of awe and wonder in the face of the supernatural that so defined the stories from the Warring States period and earlier. Added to this is a strict, linear, documentary style for the tales. Almost every story is placed in the proper time and proper year. Perhaps without realizing it, the writers of these collections were heavily influenced by Sima Qian, a court historian of the Han dynasty, who wrote very clear, linear histories which he filled with colorful biographies and happenings, and who is widely regarded as the father of history in China.

One T'ang dynasty tale, "Between Body and Soul," which later became the basis for a Yuan Dynasty opera, tells the story of a young man who finds out his childhood sweetheart is to marry someone else, and so leaves, traveling to the capital to seek office (This takes place in the third year of the reign of emperor T'ien Shou, in case you doubt (692 AD)). On his way, his young love catches up with him, having decided to run away from home to be with him. They live together in the capital for the next five years, having two children, before deciding to go back to their hometown. There, the young man strikes out ahead to visit her parents, and give them the news, her parents were much surprised and explained that his young love has been here, in town, sick in her room the whole time. When the vibrant and alive woman meets the sick one, they merge together into one person again. Thus is spiritual love stronger than the physical body.

Tales of the supernatural continued to be collected and written in the Sung Dynasty, but under the influence of the more rationalistic, Confucian age, the mystical element of the tales was substantially reduced. While the supernatural stories of this time are no less polished than those from the T'ang, they are impovershed creatively. The supernatural elements are simply stock pieces, gathered from earlier tales, now told without excitement, but rather in a matter-of-fact way. Instead of focusing on the supernatural world, tales of the Sung Dynasty concerned themselves with the mortal world. Therefore the supernatural tale came to emphasize such matters as the poetry a protagonist would write, the nature of human desires, or the historic details in the setting of the tale; but seldom did the story emphasize the supernatural element itself. The Ming Dynasty writers followed this model, adding to it a greater strength of narrative style, often times linking one or more stories to form a more interesting and complex whole. The supernatural tale finds its Ming Dynasty peak in the works of Ch'u Yu and Li Chen, who put together about a dozen stories each.

In the Ch'u Yu tale "Ts'ui-ts'ui" a man's wife is taken captive in a war, and after he searches long for her, he finds she is now the favorite concubine of a powerful General. Pretending to be her brother, he enlists in the generals service. They are able to exchange but one poem together, until at last they realize they will only be together again in death. So die they do, and are buried alongside one another. Years later, one of their former servants is in the area, and the (now)ghostly lovers invite her into their home and offer her entertainment and recite a poem together about their happiness.

It can be seen in the above example that, although the complexity and human interest of the supernatural tale had much improved, the supernatural component is not examined or explored, instead being used simply as a device to tell a compelling human drama. It would not be until the Qing Dynasty collection of stories from Pu Songling that allegory, narrative strength, and a sense of wonder at the supernatural world would at last combine.

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