Spooks in the Bamboo Grove 竹林魑魅魍魎

Xi Kang (Ji Kang 嵇康, 223-263CE) is renowned as one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢. His ‘Letter to Shan Tao’ 與巨山源絕交書 is one of the inspirations behind the creation of China Heritage, and it features in the essay On Heritage 遺 on this site.

The Bamboo Grove was located in Shanyin 山陰 county, Henan province 河南 (to the northwest of modern day Hui county 辉县). In the fourth century of our era, or the Wei-Jin 魏晉 period in China, the Bamboo Grove is said to have attracted a group of what would now be called bon vivants and wits. They were nonconformists who chaffed at the restraints of court Confucianism and the expectations of a society defined by rigid hierarchy, empty ritual and slavish compliance. Many of their bons mots, as well as those of their motley fellows, are collected in New Sayings of the World 世說新語, a work compiled by Liu Yiqing (劉義慶, 403-444CE).

Xi Kang’s famous encounter with a ghost is one of the best known incidents from the Bamboo Grove:

Xi Kang was playing the lute by lamplight when a small face suddenly appeared in front of him. It grew larger as he watched until it was huge. It was dressed in black clothes held by a dark belt. 嵇中散夜燈火下彈琴,忽有一人,面甚小,斯須轉大,遂長丈余。黑單衣,皂帶。

Xi noted its presence and blew out the lamp: ‘I’ll not compete for light with a mere spook.’ 嵇視之既熟,吹火滅,曰:吾恥與魑魅爭光。

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The essayist and poet Nie Gannu (聶紺弩, 1903-1986), known to many of his friends as a ‘wily old duffer’ 鬼老頭, alluded to Xi Kang’s ghostly encounter in ‘Blood Pressure’ 血壓, a heart-rending poem composed for his old friend, Hu Feng (胡風, 1902-1985), one of the early victims of Mao’s 1950s cultural purges:

爾身雖在爾頭亡,老作刑天夢一場。
哀莫大於心不死,名曾羞與鬼爭光。
餘生豈更毛錐誤,世事難同血壓商。
三十萬言書說甚,如何力疾又周揚。

The ghosts Nie is referring to in this poem are the people who betrayed Hu Feng, informed on him, and denounced him. Nie advises his old friend: harbour no illusions, cherish not false hope; in the past you held your enemies in contempt and would not stoop to their level to vie for fame 名曾羞與鬼爭光. You wasted your efforts in appealing to Mao, Nie goes on to say: don’t fritter away your remaining time trying to write.

Three ghosts reunited: Xiao Jun, Hu Feng and Nie Gannu in Beijing, 1980.