Lafcadio Hearn, “Some Chinese Ghosts” (1887) Transgressions in Chinese Folk Lore

Lafcadio Hearn was quite the wanderer in his life and like many of us living in this liquid world moved around, never quite finding a suitable intellectual or physical home.  His writings too him to Japan, China, New Orleans, and the Caribbean.  In this sense, he is a great representative of the phenomenon of Americans participating in the world system brought on by Western imperialism.  We could probably place Hearn in the company of “orientalists” but his sympathies are much more complex that what we tend to expect from those who wrote on the empire from the privileged perspective of the center.  Hearn was transgressive in his own life, breaking anti-miscegentation laws by marrying a former slave.  He later marries into an old samurai family in Japan and takes on many of the accoutrements of Japanese living.  In is in this period that he writes his famous English versions of Japanese ghost stories.  He eventually takes on Japanese citizenship.  His “American Writings” are collected in the Library of America, but I am not sure if we should properly call him an American writer since he was born in Greece and spent most of his life outside of the U.S. (although he did live there for around 20 years in his most formative years).  He also lived much of his life in poverty.  His work would sustain a sympathy for working people.  Given this biography, it seems to me that we have much to learn from Hearn about living in a liquid world, but I will test that hypothesis while I explore some of his writings this week.

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Hearn wrote Some Chinese Ghosts from his base in the United States and before visiting East Asia.  He later expressed regret that he tried to understand China without visiting it, from books alone.  He would not make this mistake with his great retelling of Japanese ghost stories, which are a product of many years living in Japan.  These were developed from his reading of works by important sinologists and reflect his first attempt at translating East Asian folklore.

We can take a look at this on three levels.  The first is what role folklore, in particular ghost stories, play for us in general, in a Jungian perspective.  From this we can imagine that ghost stories allow us to explore the limits that our value systems will allow.  By dealing with the impossible, they allow us to explore the limits of our possibles.  We would expect transgression to be written into the texts.  Another way is to look at these as Chinese ghost stories, developing from a certain cultural context.  The transgressions possible in these tales are only transgressive in the context of Chinese culture.  We would be wrong to try to read a universal human story in them.  Finally, we can read these as orientalism.  That is, to read them as an Western imposition, a threat to the authentic Chinese tale.  They can only teach us how Westerner looked at China in the 1880s.  I suspect all three have merit.  In any case, all the tales in Some Chinese Ghosts carry in them a story of transgression.

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The first tale “The Soul of the Great Bell” speaks of an emperors mad attempt to fuse many metals into one alloy that will create the perfect sound based on the character of each metal.  The metallurgist hired to cast the bell fails two times.  It seems the dreams fusion is impossible.  When the emperor threatens death to the metallurgist, his daughter decides to cast herself into the metal.  Her ghost fuses the metals together perfectly, creating the “precious metal” and the mighty bell.  It, however, speaks the name of the craftsman daughter, “Ko-Ngai.”  On the surface, this is simply another tale of Confucian filial piety run amok, but she through her sacrifice she is able to reach immortality.  Rather than bind herself to the duty of the past, she is capable of projection into the eternal future.  We should also note that her sacrifice makes possible to impossible, the creation of that impossible alloy.

I had half expected “The Story of Ming-Y” to turn out to be a fox-spirit story, since it starts with a promising young scholar turned away from his path by a beautiful woman.  Instead of a fox spirit, Ming-Y met the ghost of Sie-Thao, the most beautiful of women who died “not as other women die.” (26) Ming-Y, hired by the magistrate to tutor for his family, sneaks away every night to be with this beautiful woman he met on the road.  At a crucial moment, before he learns the truth but after he decided to end the visits, he decided to reject the duty to his family and live with her alone.  The truth intervenes and allows Ming-Y to live a stable and proper life, but that does not undermine the importance of his choice.  It is the story teller, not the character who cannot accept the transgressive path.

“The Legend of Tchi-Niu” is similarly contesting the reality we have been given by proposing the potential of a woman bread-winner.  In this tale, the destitute Tong sells himself as a slave.  While in the nadir of his life, he is approached in a dream by a woman who offers to be his wife and promises “I will provide.” While he cannot be public about his new marriage because it entails a complete surrender of his role as a male provider.  He is rejecting existing reality through the half-real marriage.  Of course, his wife turns out to be supernatural.  In this case, she is the goddess Tchi-Niu, this revelation is made only after she provides him a son – continuing the her promise to him.”Thus he was made free; and prosperity came to him with his freedom; and whatsoever he gave to the sacred earth was returned to him centupled.” (34)

There are three more tales, but I will not have room to explore them today because I want to bracket the question of gender for a moment to make the point.  Notice with me that in all three of these tales the active agent is female.  This turns the traditional yin-yang definitions on their head (where the yin is female and passive, while the yang is masculine and active).  We certainly can find many tales of female agency in Chinese literature but they seem to require the imposition of a supernatural element.  In this way, we can consider the hypothesis that the power of supernatural tales is that, like science fiction, they can push the limits of what is possible.

In contrast, Hearn’s next major work, Chita, is fully of the world and brutally honest at that.

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3 responses to “Lafcadio Hearn, “Some Chinese Ghosts” (1887) Transgressions in Chinese Folk Lore

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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