To Summon a Wandering Soul

Such expressions as yinhunbusan, yinhun futi, zhaohun
Sun Jingxuan’s Spectre Prowls the Land
The Science Fiction novel
Shades of Mao

This is the third essay by Professor Xu Zhangrun translated and published by China Heritage. The first was in the style of a 諫書 or Petition; the second like a 檄文, a Denunciation. This their work, elegiac in tone, is like a 祭文 Memorial to the Dead 祭文. It brings to mind Summons to the Soul.

Han Yu Eulogy to My Nephew:

Professor Xu’s lament brings to mind ‘The Great Summons’ 大招, one of the poems in the Songs of the South 楚辭 attributed to Qu Yuan (屈原, fourth century BCE). Although that ancient summons is addressed to the soul of a dead ruler, and it encourages the spirit to return to the luxuries of the human world, Xu Zhangrun’s Summons conjures a long-dead spectre, speaks of his worldly suffering and offers only heartrending memories and sorrows to mark a life of torment.

Allow me to quote a few stanzas from ‘The Great Summons’, as translated by David Hawkes:

O soul, do not flee!
O soul, come back! Do not go far away!


O soul, go not to the east!
In the east is the great sea, where the swelling waters billow endlessly,
And water-dragons swim side by side, swiftly darting above and below.
It is clammy with rain and fog, that glister white and heavy.
O soul, go not to the east, to the desolate Gulf of Brightness!


O soul, to not to the south!
In the south are a hundred leagues of flaming fire and coiling cobras;
The mountains rise sheer and steep; tigers and leopards slink;
The cow-fish is there, and the spit-sand, and the rearing python.
O soul, go not to the south! There are monsters there that will harm you.


O soul, go not to the west!
In the west are the Moving Sands stretching endlessly on and on,
And beasts with heads like swine, slanting eyes and shaggy hair,
Long claws and serrated teeth, and wild, made laughter.
O soul, go not to the west! In the west are many dangers.


O soul, go not to the north!
In the north are the Frozen Mountain, and the Torch Dragon, glaring red;
And the Dai river that cannot be crossed, whose depths are unfathomable;
And the sky is white and glittering, and all is congealed with cold.
O soul, go not to the north! There is no bourne there to your journeying.


The difference is that, in Xu Zhangrun’s lament, it is the world of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution that, in all directions allowed no safe haven or respite. Only in death was there escape, yet even now the ghost remains unquiet.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
26 November 2018

The Teacher

Xu Zhangrun 許章潤

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


It was after a deluge, a flood that left in its wake nothing but ruination, a vast world submerged. As rebuilding took place in the days following the disaster, years of ceaseless work, our parents moved us into a new home. It was three simple rooms in what was nothing more than a thatched hut, a humble rustic dwelling not far from our original house, subject to the changing seasons where we sweltered in the summer and passed the winters in the cold. But the seven of us had this as our home, a place near a river where we weathered the seasons, the river waters rising high and decreasing with the coming of spring or the advent of autumn.

We lived and laboured there, lives as insignificant as those of insects. But it was home, a place in the embrace of heaven and earth that was ours, one where finally we could feel secure. There was an east-west path running outside our door, and our house was a the spot between the small township and the countryside that lay beyond. People travelled back and forth along that path in the morning and afternoon, but hardly a soul would venture out in the pitch dark of night. Vehicles would occasionally pass by making a great racket on the road on the other side of the river. In what was a pre-modern world, unlike today, their clouds of exhaust would feel as they were nurturing our isolated country spot.

Early morning, then at midday and then again in the evening we could hear the loudspeakers blaring from the local government compound not far away. They were broadcasting the important directives of the Great Leader sequestered far away in the distant north. The sound was tumultuous, the emotional tenor frenzied. Invisible, beyond reach, and although formless, the evidence of its impact was everywhere. Nothing escaped its touch, as though directed by one who was all knowing and all seeing. And that’s why it was so terrifying. Clamorous yet deathly silent, mysterious yet unabashedly present. It was a constant physical reminder of the Presence in our out-of-the-way part of the world, one that had just barely survived devastation.


That was back in the early 1970s. The lives of people in our part of rural China were wracked by hunger and terror; although, regardless of this, we lived with something resembling a sense of hope. Restricted by our modest needs eeking out a life of mindful penury, the days and months passed quickly even if anxiety was a constant companion.


An old man would frequently pass by our place. He was tall and slightly haunched, his face shaded in the summer by a ragtag cap, his clothes tied at the waist in the winter by a belt of knotted grass. In my minds eye I always see him wearing straw sandals on his feet with the legs of his pants rolled up over his knees. He’d always cast a glance in our front door as he hurried by, although sometimes he would stop for a drink of water, gulping it down just outside our house. Though, I do remember, sometimes he took his time and drank slowly, chatting from a position on our doorstep. The talk would be harmless gossip, and his tone indifferent — neither mournful or excited. If it was cold water drawn from the well and in our big water container he’d slurp it down, it is was boiled water from the thermos he’d sip it slowly. We could never afford any tealeaves. I can only ever remember us having tea during the Chinese New Year festivities. One time though we had this small chunk of rock sugar that was mixed into the well water. Everyone thought it tasted marvellous. My mother was always particularly courteous towards this old man, greeting him and seeing him off with great politeness.


All those years later I still never knew who the old fellow was, and it never occurred to me to ask. I do remember him sitting there on the threshold of our house staring at the scars on his knees. I left home in my youth and was always preoccupied with making my way in the world, chasing after mundane success, and gradually we all became like rootless tufts of grass buffeted by the times. I became a stranger to my old home, and long ago I forgot all about that old man. Right up until about six years ago, not long before my father passed away. I was at his bedside chatting with him and somehow we got to talking about that fellow. Only then was I finally able to piece the story together.


The ‘Old Man’ wasn’t that old at all. At the time, he wasn’t even sixty. It turns out that he had been a teacher in our local town, a tutor in a small privately run academy. Not long after the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he was locked up in a makeshift jail under the Dictatorship of the Masses. Eventually, he was packed off to the countryside, his town residence permit transferred as well, so he could forcibly be ‘Re-educated by the Poor and Lower Middle Peasants’. In those days, there was a strict division between the cities and the countryside. The villages were absolutely impoverished, just as Mao had once said: Poor and Blank. Forced to labour in the fields during all seasons, night and day without cease, the villages after having handed over their share of public grains were left being unable to feed themselves properly. Too poor to afford adequate clothing by spring each year they had gone through everything they had stored through the winter and, gathering in groups they would set out to the cities to beg. The authorities did everything to block, hinder and harass them. That was simply the state of affairs.


After finishing senior high school my eldest sister was sent off as a rusticated youth to the countryside, leading with a simple backpack. That day, my mother hid herself in the kitchen and wailed. This was an added source of anguish. That’s how that old teacher had been exiled to the wilds to fend for himself and survive as best he could. Political control ended at the water margin, outside the bounds of Greek city states there were no gods to rely on, merely beasts to which one may fall prey. The polities [of England and the United States] on opposite shores of the Atlantic inherited much from this ancient tradition, although time allowed for a measure of renewal and diversion so that the political refugee might have some hope of survival. However, in the Slavic realm ruled over by Communist totalitarianism there was no escape. Be it in the city or the country, the new and the old were combined in a devastating new form that not only gave full scope to the pitiless evils of the past but added to them new humiliations. Truly, the Net of Heaven was cast wide, and none could slip through it. That pitiful teacher, living in the midst of this had no choice but to try and survive in the wilderness, yet never able to exact the net of dictatorship.


During the early Cultural Revolution, before that flood struck, the mass movement allowed people to get away with anything they wanted: all their grievances and hates could find complete expression. Parading the people who had been denounced as ‘Cow Spirits and Snake Demons’ down the village street was like a joyful celebration. I remember being woken one morning by the banging of cymbals and chanting of slogans. I looked out the window only to see what looked like a ghostly spectre but in human form — face darkened by soot, a pointed dunce’s cap, a heavy rope tied around his shoulders that wound around his arms drawing them behind his back where his arms were tightly bound, head bowed and bent at the waist hesitantly making his way forward. The impossibly thin and tall dunce’s cap waved tremulously on his head. His ‘guards’ were waving staffs and clubs threateningly, occasionally striking out at the hapless ghoul stumbling before them and then pulling up his head roughly before pressing it down with all their might. The clubs had a special name: ‘The Cudgel Use to Fight with Civility, Defend with Arms’. As thick as a man’s wrist these clubs were about 1.5 metres in length, painted white and blood red at both ends. As they were ferociously twirled the red tips made it look like a ring of fire, the motion creating waves of wind. If they were taken to a victim heads would crack open, bones splinter and ribs break.


On another occasion, it was also first thing in the morning, there was a whole pack of spirit-demons tied up with coarse ropes press-ganged into a line. I don’t know why their mouths were stuffed with hay, but they had heavy wooden boards hung around their necks on which their names were written. They too had tall hats on their heads, but they were crawling along on their knees. Their names were written in black but crossed out with red lines. The hay in their mouths really stank and I learned that it had been taken from the toilets: it was the stuff the farmers used to wipe their asses, so it was half rotted and covered in excrement. There were a few people leading the procession carrying bamboo baskets from which they seemed to be scattering lime. This time it was different from the silent shaming of the usual processions. It was a show being put on for the crowd and the Monsters were all wailing pitifully. It was heart-rending and incredibly loud. It’s only when I got a bit closer that I see that there was ground glass in the lime. Where the line of Monsters had been there was a line of bloody smudges on the ground. The lime would get into the wounds on their knees and it must have been agony. The local townsfolk jostled to see the procession with outstretched necks. There were all kinds of reactions: mocking laughter and goading, as well as silent and thoughtful observers, and a few who covered their faces and shed tears. I was only eight at the time, maybe nine, little better than a vile beast myself. This is something i witnessed for myself but although it was scared, and I felt discomfort of witnessing such torture, it didn’t touch my heart of really make me feel any terror in sympathy.


The first of these gruesome processions and public humiliations was aimed at the Five Bad Elements — landlords, rich peasants, counter-counter-revolutionaries, bad elements and Rightists — the second was about the primary and high school teachers who had been ‘overthrown’ during the uprising of the early Cultural Revolution. My parent’s old teacher was forced to take part in all of these humiliations. Unable to bare the constant indignities he tried killing himself by bashing his head against a wall but ended up with a cracked and bleeding skull. That particular day, after the procession in which he’d been one of the people forced to walk on his knees over the broken glass and lime as he was washing his knees in the river I saw him picking bits of glass out of the wounds. His knees became infected and didn’t heal but fortunately the Chinese herbalist doctor in the village was able to brew him some medicine that helped him gradually recover.


Not all that long ago, there was an expression, you know the one: ‘The old society turned people into ghosts; the new society has transformed ghosts into people’. But God of Thunder, Mother of Earth: call out to the Clear Heavens above, appeal to the Vast Earth below: I ask you to ask those ghosts and ghouls whose knees are scarred by those wounds: is that really true, or is it a lie?


From the ancient Indian liturgical text, the Rigveda:



Even this lament cannot recall the soul of a man who died due to cruel injustice.

The old teacher had a son and a daughter: the girl died from hunger during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, so she was already long departed before his final humiliations; as for his only son, the boy took flight without a word to his parent and he was never been heard from or seen again. Because of their father’s class status neither child ever married; their lives were cut short before they’d even had a chance to start living.

His wife couldn’t bear it and she killed herself by throwing herself down a well, leaving him alone to face the vile evils of the world. He passed the last years of his tortured and destitute life in dire poverty.


Tears blind me as I write these words, and a bitter cry wells in my throat: …

Tell me, all of you, tell me now: how many teachers were there like that? Who suffered such torments, who faded without a sound, who disappeared without a trace? Who will ever bring them justice? Who?


The world is but like a grain of sand; the leaves fall silently. It’s dusk now, and it’s as though i can hear those wandering souls crying out in the wilderness. I chill runs through me.


Early evening, 18 November 2018
Revised in the Studio That Isn’t, Tsinghua University


I contemplated the darkness of the human spirit when I saw that a big-character poster appeared on the streets of Beijing proclaiming that ‘the Cultural Revolution was a beacon of human civilisation’. The evils of extreme leftism can only be prevented by education and so in a mood of desperation I wrote out these words to mourn the souls of those who died in injustice.

My votive offering to the departed spirit of those so grievously wronged.


Professor Xu’s Explanation