Lu Xun’s Ghosts 無常、女吊

This section starts with two passages from the writer Lu Xun (魯迅, 1881-1936) on the subject of ghosts, death and revenge.

Gloria Davies has kindly given permission for us to reproduce here her discussion of Lu Xun’s essay-memoirs ‘Wu Chang or Life-is-Transient’ 無常 (1926) and ‘The Hanged Woman’ 女吊 (1936) from her Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of ViolenceCambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. The original texts of both essays are also appended below; for English translations, see Lu Xun: Selected Works, trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980, vol.1, pp.380-388 and 433-440 respectively.

This essay is a chapter in Spectres in the Seventh Month in New Sinology JottingsChina Heritage. See:

— The Editor, China Heritage 

Lu Xun in death.

Not Hell

Presumably our great country is not hell, yet ‘the mind creates its own kingdom’, and before me I always see banks of louring clouds packed with old ghosts and new ghosts, wandering spirits, ox-headed monsters, beasts, transformations, loud wails and silent lamentations, which I find it hard to bear. To deceive myself, I pretend to hear and see nothing, and make believe that I am not in hell. 華夏大概並非地獄,然而「境由心造」,我眼前總充塞著重迭的黑雲,其中有故鬼,新鬼,遊魂,牛首阿旁,畜生,化生,大叫喚,無叫喚,使我不堪聞見。我裝作無所聞見模樣,以圖欺騙自己,總算已從地獄中出離。

Lu Xun, ‘After “Knocking Against the Wall” ‘, 1926,
trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang.

On Death

As everyone knows, we Chinese believe in ghosts (more recently called ‘souls’ or ‘spirits’) and since there are ghosts, after death we can at least exist as ghosts if not as men, which is better than nothing. But the imagined duration of this ghostly existence seems to vary according to one’s wealth. The poor appear to believe that when they die their souls will pass into another body, an idea derived from Buddhism. Of course, transmigration in Buddhism is a complicated process, by no means so simple; but the poor are usually ignorant people who do no know this. That is why criminals condemned to death often show no fear when taken to the execution ground, but shout, ‘Twenty years from now I shall be a stout fellow again!’ Moreover, according to popular belief a ghost wears the clothes he had on at the time of death; and since the poor have no good clothes and cannot therefore cut a fine figure as ghosts, it is far better for them to be reborn at once as naked babies. Did you ever see a new-born infant wearing a beggar’s rags or a swimming-suit? No, never. Very well, then, that is a fresh start. Someone may object: If you believe in transmigration, in the next existence you may even be worse off or actually become a beast — what a fearful thought! But the poor don’t seem to think that way. They firmly believe that they have not committed sins frightful enough to condemn them to becoming beasts: they have not had the position, power or money to commit such sins. 誰都知道,我們中國人是相信有鬼(近時或謂之「靈魂」)的,既有鬼,則死掉之後,雖然已不是人,卻還不失為鬼,總還不算是一無所有。不過設想中的做鬼的久暫,卻因其人的生前的貧富而不同。窮人們是大抵以為死後就去輪回的,根源出於佛教。佛教所說的輪回,當然手續繁重,並不這麼簡單,但窮人往往無學,所以不明白。這就是使死罪犯人綁赴法場時,大叫「二十年後又是一條好漢」,面無懼色的原因。況且相傳鬼的衣服,是和臨終時一樣的,窮人無好衣裳,做了鬼也決不怎麼體面,實在遠不如立刻投胎,化為赤條條的嬰兒的上算。我們曾見誰家生了小孩,胎里就穿著叫化子或是游泳家的衣服的麼?從來沒有。這就好,從新來過。也許有人要問,既然相信輪回,那就說不定來生會墮入更窮苦的景況,或者簡直是畜生道,更加可怕了。但我看他們是並不這樣想的,他們確信自己並未造出該入畜生道的罪孽,他們從來沒有能墮畜生道的地位,權勢和金錢。

But neither do those men with position, power and money believe that they should become beasts. They either turn Buddhist in order to become saints, or advocate the study of the Confucian classics and a return to ancient ways in order to become Confucian sages. Just as in life they expect to be a privileged class, after death they expect to be exempt from transmigration. As for those who have a little money, though they also believe they should be exempt from transmigration, since they have no high ambitions or lofty plans they just wait placidly. Round about the age of fifty, they look for a burial place, buy a coffin, and burn paper money to open a bank account in the nether regions, expecting their sons and grandsons to sacrifice to them every year. This is surely much pleasanter than life on earth. If I were a ghost now, with filial descendants in the world of men, I would not have to sell my articles one by one, or ask the Beixin Publishing House for payment. I could simply lie at was in my cedarwood or fir coffin, while at every festival and at New Year a fine feast and a pile of banknotes would be placed before me. That would be the life! 然而有著地位,權勢和金錢的人,卻又並不覺得該墮畜生道;他們倒一面化為居士,準備成佛,一面自然也主張讀經復古,兼做聖賢。他們像活著時候的超出人理一樣,自以為死後也超出了輪回的。至於小有金錢的人,則雖然也不覺得該受輪回,但此外也別無雄才大略,只豫備安心做鬼。所以年紀一到五十上下,就給自己尋葬地,合壽材,又燒紙錠,先在冥中存儲,生下子孫,每年可吃羹飯。這實在比做人還享福。假使我現在已經是鬼,在陽間又有好子孫,那麼,又何必零星賣稿,或向北新書局去算賬呢,只要很閒適的躺在楠木或陰沈木的棺材里,逢年逢節,就自有一桌盛饌和一堆國幣擺在眼前了,豈不快哉!

Generally speaking, unlike the very rich and great, who are not bound by the laws of the nether regions, the poor would like to be reborn at once, while those comfortably-0ff would like to remain as ghosts for as long as possible. The comfortably-off are willing to remain ghosts because their life as ghosts (this sounds paradoxical but I can think of no better way of expressing it) is the continuation of their life on earth and they are not yet tired of it. Of course there are rulers in the nether regions who are extremely strict and just; but they will make allowances for these ghosts and accept presents from them too, just like good officials on earth. 就大體而言,除極富貴者和冥律無關外,大抵窮人利於立即投胎,小康者利於長久做鬼。小康者的甘心做鬼,是因為鬼的生活(這兩字大有語病,但我想不出適當的名詞來),就是他還未過厭的人的生活的連續。陰間當然也有主宰者,而且極其嚴厲,公平,但對於他獨獨頗肯通融,也會收點禮物,恰如人間的好官一樣。

— Lu Xun, ‘Death’, 1936,
trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang.

Lu Xun’s drawing of Wu Chang, Life-is-Transient.

A Specter of Justice

Gloria Davies

In 1926 Lu Xun wrote the essay ‘Wu Chang: Life-Is-Transient’ 無常 to commemorate one of Shaoxing’s guardian spirits of the underworld as a particularly fond childhood memory. In recalling Wu Chang as an integral part of the street operas and temple fairs he attended as a young boy in [his hometown of] Shaoxing 紹興, Lu Xun explained that the very name Wu Chang — meaning ‘impermanence’ or ‘transience’ — exemplified the creative powers of the so-called lower classes 下等人 in conjuring up a powerful image of mortal finitude. More importantly, he wrote, in Wu Chang’s literal embodiment of the idea that ‘life- is-transient’, the masses afforded themselves a consoling prospect of the afterlife as the realm of true justice, insofar as this summoner of the newly dead did not discriminate between rich and poor. In this context, Lu Xun quoted mockingly from his adversary Chen Yuan to highlight a contrast between ordinary and elite sensibilities:

The ‘lower classes’ are simply incapable of producing a febrile witticism such as this: ‘At present, it is a narrow and perilous track that we travel. To our left there’s a barren and boundless marshland; to our right there’s an equally barren and boundless desert, while far ahead, shrouded in distant and infinite mists, lies our destination.’ Nonetheless they have an intuitive and clear understanding of the road that takes us to our destination ‘far ahead, shrouded in distant and infinite mists’: namely, seeking marriage, getting married, raising children, and dying… .

Most of them — and I’m referring here to the ‘lower classes’ of my unworthy county — have lived and suffered; they have been slandered and falsely accused. Over time, the accumulation of these experiences has given them the knowledge that, in the world of the living, the means for upholding ‘universal law’ is left up to a single assembly of people, and, as they see it, that assembly is inaccessibly ‘distant and infinite’. This is why they can’t help feeling pulled toward the apparitions of the nether world. Most people consider themselves to have suffered some form or other of injustice. As for the ‘cultivated men of virtue’ who live among us, they can hoodwink only the most gullible. If you ask the ignorant masses, they will tell you without any pretense to cogitation: True justice is delivered only in the nether world!

When you think of life’s happier aspects, you clearly feel you want to go on living, but when you contemplate the bitter side of life, Wu Chang’s visit may not be so unwelcome and fearsome. Whether high or low, rich or poor, we invariably appear ’empty- handed’ before Yama, King of the Underworld. Those who were wronged will be rewarded and those who wronged others will be punished… . Wu Chang holds a huge abacus in his hand, and you can strike any number of venal poses but to no avail.

Lu Xun completed ‘Wu Chang: Life-Is-Transient’ on 23 June 1926, six months before his arrival in revolutionary Guangzhou and ten months before Chiang Kai-shek’s purge of the Communists brought the [national political] ‘united front’ to an abrupt end. This was a time of heightened enthusiasm for mass politics among intellectuals. Unwilling to hail revolution as the panacea to social ills, Lu Xun instead privileged the ordinary person’s sensibility to justice.

Toward the end of ‘Wu Chang’, he described the ritual enactments of this summoner of souls as projecting a personality that was ‘ghostly yet human; principled but not without feeling; scary yet loveable.’ He noted that whereas the Wu Chang of the opera stage spoke scripted lines, the Wu Chang impersonator of the temple fair was silent. His role was to trail behind a jester who carried a plate of food, the implication being that although Wu Chang wanted to eat, the jester denied him the food. Of this ritual scene of ‘Farewelling Wu Chang’ during the temple fair, Lu Xun wrote that it conveyed the ludic nature of local funerals: that the requirement to prepare a feast for Wu Chang affirmed a common humanity:

Everyone likes teasing Wu Chang because he is so straightforward, likes a good debate, and has human feelings.

Eight years later, in his 1934 essay ‘Discussing Writing from the Outside’ 門外文談, Lu Xun summoned Wu Chang once more. In 1926, he had quoted the following lines, assigned to Wu Chang on the street-opera stage, as emblematic of the impartial justice delivered by the summoner of souls:

Never again will anyone be let off the hook!
Don’t think you can shield yourself behind a wall of bronze or iron!
Don’t think that being related to the emperor protects you!

In both 1926 and 1934, Lu Xun pointed out that Wu Chang of the opera stage uttered these lines in response to the punishment he received from Yama. This was a popular scene in the epic of the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana’s descent into the underworld to rescue his mother. Out of pity for his young nephew’s grieving mother, Wu Chang had allowed the boy, newly dead from an incurable illness, to live on for ‘a brief moment’. For this dereliction of his duties, and suspecting Wu Chang of having accepted a bribe, Yama ordered the summoner of souls to be tied up and given forty lashes. In 1926, Lu Xun wrote that Wu Chang’s declared resolve never again to show leniency reminded him of the self- assuaging remark from the Zhuangzi: ‘Despite a troubled heart, one does not blame the whims of Fate.’

In 1934, he repeated the same lines from ‘Wu Chang’ to exclaim: ‘Can our writers produce literature so human, so conscience- stricken, so law- abiding, and so resolute?’ This evocation of humanism as empathy, forbearance, and justice held together in delicate balance underlines the importance Lu Xun placed on self-accountability in advocating baihua 白話 [vernacular Chinese]. As the title, ‘Discussing Writing from the Outside’, makes plain, he was an ‘insider’ willfully positioning himself on ‘the outside’ to announce the obsolescence of elite wenyan 文言 [literary Chinese], the written language that constituted his very being. In reading Wu Chang as the property of illiterate ‘outsiders’, he imparted to their spoken language an authenticity and dignity he saw as lacking among the elite initiates of written Chinese.

— Gloria Davies, Lu Xun’s Revolution, pp.290-293.





















Tao Yuanqing’s 陶元慶 interpretation of The Hanged Woman.

Of Revenge and Forgiveness

Gloria Davies

On 20 September 1936, one month before his death on 19 October, Lu Xun completed ‘The Hanged Woman’, pointing out that he intended the essay as a complement to ‘Wu Chang’, written ten years earlier. He stated that these two ghosts appeared to be unique to his hometown of Shaoxing and commented that whereas Wu Chang ‘simply put up with death without making a fuss’, the Hanged Woman embraced death with a vengeance. Whereas Wu Chang reminded Lu Xun of death as the great leveler, the Hanged Woman enjoined him to heed the call of justice.

He described her as a specter radiant with unbridled hate for those who had wronged her in life; who had chosen an unnatural death to end her suffering. She powdered her face chalk- white and dressed in bright red before hanging herself, thereby clearly signaling an intent to metamorphose into an avenging ghost. Lu Xun explained that her choice of color was ‘understandable’ because ‘red possessed a positive energy 陽氣 that made it easier for her to approach the living’, noting that this was essential for a ghost bent on haunting her persecutors and instilling fear in others. He observed that the Hanged Woman had such force of presence in local Shaoxing culture that women intent on ending their lives of misery often copied both her mode of suicide and her dress.

He devoted most of the essay to recounting his childhood memories of the Hanged Woman, highlighting the special place she occupied as a key event on the street-opera stage, her entrance announced by the blare of mournful trumpets. He wrote that he had long forgotten the lines she sang, noting that even the one line he cited in the essay, ‘I was a daughter of the Yang family, ah me, unhappy me!’, was a contribution from his younger brother, Jianren. For Lu Xun, what was memorable about the Hanged Woman was her appearance: her red jacket, black coat, disheveled hair, pitch-black eyebrows, and crimson lips rendered all the more prominent against the whiteness of her powdered face. She was, for him, the specter of the oppressed calling out for justice. He stressed that the female gender of this archetypal vengeful ghost was no accident: even though there was also the specter of the Hanged Man, his female counterpart commanded greater potency in the afterlife.

Lu Xun nonetheless indicated that the Hanged Woman was subordinated to patriarchal power by describing a scene from the street opera in which she wrestled the Hanged Man for the soul of a new ghost to take her place, only to be defeated. He wrote that she was thus forced to rely on the pity of the Daoist Heavenly Guardian 亡靈官, who killed her rival so that she could ‘do as she pleased’. Lu Xun remarked ironically that this ghostly official was, after all, ‘a fierce champion of women’s rights’. Here he also suggested that it was because the oppressed yearned so acutely for just redress that Chinese stories about the ‘lives’ of ghosts were highly versatile, such that even the dead could be repeatedly “’killed‘ in order that wrongs might be righted. Lu Xun observed that ’the one bad habit‘ of Chinese ghosts was their preoccupation with finding a ’substitute‘ to bear their burdens. He concluded:

This makes their quest based entirely on self-profit. Otherwise we would be able to coexist with them in perfect ease. Since this is the custom, even the Hanged Woman is no exception. Sometimes she is so fixed on ’seeking a substitute‘ that she forgets to take revenge. In Shaoxing, most people cook rice in an iron pot over coal or straw. Once the soot accumulates, the pot loses its receptivity to heat. Hence, we often find soot scrapings on the ground. The soot is always scattered, because no village woman would dare take the more convenient path of simply turning the pot upside down on the ground to scrape off the soot, for this would form a black circle.

The reason for this is to prevent the spirits of the hanged from turning the soot circle into a noose to lure and trap the living. Scattering the soot is a form of passive resistance, but the aim is merely to guard against being turned into a ‘substitute’ and not out of fear that she seeks revenge. Insofar as the oppressed do not set out to take revenge, they are not burdened with the fear of being the target of revenge: this fear belongs to murderers and their lackeys who surreptitiously feed on the flesh and blood of others. Hence the latter are wont to offer such advice as ‘Don’t repay evil for evil’ or ‘Let bygones be bygones’. This year I have seen more clearly into the mysteries of these creatures with human faces.

In summoning the Hanged Woman so close to his own death, Lu Xun clearly intended to turn her into a parting image of his critical inquiry. The idea of conjoining revenge and death also framed the essay titled ‘Death’ [quoted above — Ed.], which he wrote a fortnight before ‘The Hanged Woman’. In ‘Death’, Lu Xun sought to put his worldly affairs in order (he knew his tuberculosis was incurable and the end was imminent): in it he published his instructions so that his family, friends, and protégés were left in no doubt about his wishes, and he also dwelt on his own fascination with the intricacies of Chinese ghost stories.

Reprising the theme of the afterlife as the sole prospect of justice for the oppressed, he wrote that whereas the Buddhist idea of transmigration inspired the poor to yearn for rebirth into a better life, its impact on those who were comfortably off 小康者 was entirely different. The comfortably off were complacent and sought nothing more than to maintain the status quo: hence ‘they would see an advantage in remaining as ghosts’ so long as there were no disruptions to their way of life. For his own part, he belonged to the category of persons who would go ‘without making a fuss’  隨隨便便; who ‘would not think too much upon it even when the end is near’. Two weeks later he used ‘without making a fuss’ in ‘The Hanged Woman’ to describe Wu Chang, to evoke an equanimity about passing on, in emulation of his favorite childhood ghost.

— Gloria Davies, Lu Xun’s Revolution, pp.300-302.