Observations on Encounters with Supernatural Beings in Chinese Folk Religion and Literature
9:00 am – 10:45 am
- Organised by Anthony Hu
- Anthony Hu, “A World of Ghost and Spirits in Ancient China: A Folk-Oriented Perspective”
- Dirk Kuhlmann, “Getting the gui of the Land: On the Rediscovery of Taiwan’s Supernatural World”
- Yang Sheng, “Chinese Intellectuals and Their Karmic Beliefs in the Anomaly World—As Shown in the Late Qing Collection Yeyu qiudeng lu”
- Daniela Murillo, “The Souls of Zhongguancun: Ghosts from the Past, Stories of the Present”
The folk religious and literary landscape of China is fascinating not only because it is inhabited by myriad ghosts and spirits including monsters and demons in the shape of animals, plants, birds, insects, and other living beings in heaven and on earth, but also because of their social relations and interactions with each other, in particular their interference in human mundane affairs. They coexist in the framework of a world of ethical-utilitarian dualism, that is, between good and evil. Being determined to pursue good fortune and avoid calamity, countless common people simply conduct ritual performances such as prayers and sacrifices in order to satisfy these supernatural beings whom they believe in, on the one hand; in cases when they fail to live a prosperous life, they believe it is due to the terrible influence of the evil ones and will seek the aid of magical spells, witchcraft, or other forms of exorcism, on the other hand. Ghosts, demons, and strange creatures of this negative kind are depicted in abundance in a wide range of materials, especially in literary accounts of the fantastic. These materials offer a significant glimpse into human lives, popular beliefs, customary regulations, and ritual practices, though some phenomena will still remain inexplicable. Therefore, in order to present an overall view on this aspect of the rich Chinese popular culture and profound religious beliefs, the panellists will explore the world of ghosts and demons in four presentations respectively focusing on the early and late classical literature as well as on modern and recent literature.
Anthony Hu, “A World of Ghost and Spirits in Ancient China: A Folk-Oriented Perspective”
The presentation focuses on the religious landscape of ancient China mainly depicted both in the book of Mozi 墨子 and the manuscript of the Rishu 日書 (Daybook) excavated at Chengguan Shuihudi 城關睡虎地 in Hubei Province in 1975. Although the former presents a world of ghosts and spirits from a socio-political point of view and its orientation is primarily connected with the circle of the elite class and culture, the source of which it makes full use contains anomalous writings from the contemporary popular culture of that time. The latter obviously comprises the hemerological material circulating among common people of ancient China and its foremost concern is ordinary people’s daily life. A holistic approach is thus employed to illustrate the strong visual world of ancient Chinese popular culture and religious beliefs in terms of the authors’ intentions, their writing style and readership, ritual performances, and worldviews. My purpose is not only to present various ghosts and spirits, regardless of being named or unnamed, as well as plants, animals, or other forms of beings by their respective origin, but also to compare those pieces of strange writings in the Mozi and the Rishu in an attempt to obtain an overall understanding of religious culture of Ancient China.
Dirk Kuhlmann, “Getting the gui of the Land: On the Rediscovery of Taiwan’s Supernatural World”
This paper will introduce a fascinating motif within Taiwanese literature: The rediscovery of stories dealing with the supernatural, i.e., ghosts (gui) and monsters (yaoguai), in a Taiwanese context as markers of a cultural identity. The focus of my analysis will be on novels with fantastic elements, two by indigenous authors of Taiwan, Neqou Soqluman’s Tonggu shafei chuanqi (The Legend of Tongku Saveq) and Badai’s Wulü (The Journey of a Wu Practitioner), and one by the Hakka author Gan Yao-ming entitled Sha gui (Killing Ghosts). In addition, I will discuss several publications which are presented as modern “accounts of the strange” (zhiguai) or even catalogues of supernatural beings specific to the island. There is a close interrelation and overlapping between these publications and other subgenres, such as fantasy literature or Manga graphic novels, and some of these records are rather tongue-in-cheek. However, at the same time, the works mentioned above also manage to connect popular culture, literature, and the academic world by cooperating with renowned scholars in folk religion and indigenous culture of Taiwan. The novels, the “accounts of the strange” as well as the catalogues share the genuine motivation to showcase unique features of Taiwanese culture, in particular its diversity, and make the readers aware of Taiwan’s history as a conflux of several cultures.
Yang Sheng, “Chinese Intellectuals and Their Karmic Beliefs in the Anomaly World—As Shown in the Late Qing Collection Yeyu qiudeng lu”
Zhiguai 志怪 (records of anomalies)—a category of biji xiaoshuo 筆記小説 (narratives in note-form) – is a special genre in the history of Chinese literature. Such collections mainly contain hearsay narratives about ghosts, immortals, fox fairies, spirits, etc. collected by the authors/compilers in everyday life, and the stories are usually provided with commentaries by the authors. By approaching these stories, we can understand the worldview and values of Chinese intellectuals as well as the world order they believed in. The records of anomalies are not simply meant for the amusement of readers but they reflect the author’s way of thinking. Thus, analyzing the zhiguai stories is not only a study of Chinese literature but also research on the ideology of Chinese intellectuals. The zhiguai collections always include many stories about yebao 業報 (Karma or Vipāka). This paper will focus on Yeyu qiudeng lu 夜雨秋燈錄, an eminent zhiguai-collection of the late Qing period, its author Xuan Ding 宣鼎 (1832–1879) being a typical intellectual of the time in question. Most zhiguai stories in this work are composed with a karmic structure, i.e., the plot development follows a certain karmic logic. This presentation, by examining a typical story in this collection, will show how Chinese traditional intellectuals were influenced by the sanjiao 三教 thought—namely syncretic ideas of Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist origin.
Daniela Murillo, “The Souls of Zhongguancun: Ghosts from the Past, Stories of the Present”
Zhongguancun is one of China’s intellectual powerhouses; it is home for several of the most prestigious universities of the country, as well as for several of the most renowned Chinese tech giants. The “Chinese Silicon Valley” seems to have its eyes fixed in the future. Thus, not many would associate the area as a fertile place for folk beliefs and stories. Its present name “中关村” camouflages the past history of the area. Originally called “中官坟” (meaning “Tomb of middle officials,” or Eunuchs), the area was chosen in Ming and Qing Dynasty to bury high-rank officials, due to its good energy, or Feng Shui 风水. Important historical figures are believed to be buried in the area; such is the case of the Qing poet Nalan Xingde 纳兰性德 (1655–1685), whose family cemetery is believed to be located in nowadays Renmin University Campus. Ancient deaths, as well as more recent ones, give origin to a myriad of legends related to ghosts. As a result, its inhabitants have to find their own mechanisms to deal with these overwhelming interactions of different realms, bringing traditional means of protection into the predominantly intellectual environment. This paper aims to unearth, with the help of local informants, the beliefs on the supernatural present in the area of Zhongguancun, and how they shape the forward-moving spirit of the area.