Sunday, 2 February 2014

Book Review: Some Chinese Ghosts

Some Chinese GhostsSome Chinese Ghosts by Lafcadio Hearn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While these stories are entertaining, I don't think they're very Chinese. The book was published in 1887, while Lafcadio Hearn was living in New Orleans and working as a journalist, years before he ever went to Japan - for which work he's best known. Hearn admits, in his notes at the end of the book, to basing these stories on translations of Chinese tales by early Orientalists, and on his own imagination. Mostly, I think, the latter.

Almost all of the ghosts (and other supernatural beings) are female, and they work miracles for those (men) who deserve them. A girl throws herself into a vat of molten metal for her father's sake and lives on; a young tutor falls in love with an enchantress, but is not punished for it; a young man is rewarded for his piety and selflessness with a supernatural wife and riches and a son. These stories remind me strongly of English translations of Alf Layla wa Layla (not Burton's, thank God. Mostly Lane's).

There are a few other stories that don't fit that mold: a faithful official's corpse, saint-like, does not decay; an origin story for the tea-plant (seemingly not a story known in China); an origin story for porcelain

The descriptions are vivid and flowery and the places and characters leap off the page. There are rather too many transliterated Chinese words which will mean nothing to readers who don't speak the language, but the Hearn cuts down on them after the first page or so of each story. He does give explanations of them in the glossary (this book is nearly one-third appendices); they don't add much and he needn't have included them, but he liked the sound and the exoticism.

From the opening of the first story, The Soul of the Great Bell:

The water-clock marks the hour in the Ta-chung sz',—in the Tower of the Great Bell: now the mallet is lifted to smite the lips of the metal monster,—the vast lips inscribed with Buddhist texts from the sacred Fa-hwa-King, from the chapters of the holy Ling-yen-King! Hear the great bell responding!—how mighty her voice, though tongueless!—KO-NGAI! All the little dragons on the high-tilted eaves of the green roofs shiver to the tips of their gilded tails under that deep wave of sound; all the porcelain gargoyles tremble on their carven perches; all the hundred little bells of the pagodas quiver with desire to speak. KO-NGAI!—all the green-and-gold tiles of the temple are vibrating; the wooden goldfish above them are writhing against the sky; the uplifted finger of Fo shakes high over the heads of the worshippers through the blue fog of incense! KO-NGAI!—What a thunder tone was that! All the lacquered goblins on the palace cornices wriggle their fire-colored tongues! And after each huge shock, how wondrous the multiple echo and the great golden moan and, at last, the sudden sibilant sobbing in the ears when the immense tone faints away in broken whispers of silver,—as though a woman should whisper, "Hiai!"
You can read the whole book for free via Project Gutenberg.  It's only a little over a hundred pages long.

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