Header images courtesy of Penguin Books
The Egyptian Book of the Dead wrapped the mummy up in spells that gave it its (after)life. From the Greek Odyssey came the siren’s haunting song and the cyclops’s one-eyed glare. Irish novelist Bram Stoker’s Dracula brushed grave dirt off the slumbering vampire to introduce him to the broader daylight. In the shadows of hushed whispers under the waning moon, spirits and creatures of every culture lurk. They lie in wait, for words to give them shape.
Before they were put on the page, Chinese supernatural beings had been myths, folklore, and religious stories passed on from mother to son, neighbour to neighbour. The ancient worship of nature and shamanism found flicking tails in clouds and feathered hoofs in ravines. Buddhism held the key to the 18 levels of hell. Taoism saw plants and animals opening their eyes. In the following literary classics, these ideas and beliefs all came together, and we began to know the beings in not just glimpses, but their fleshed-out forms… Here are five classic texts about spirits and creatures for you to get started.
Predating even the Qin dynasty, the Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经; Shānhǎi Jīng) may be as much of an enigma as the beings it describes. For one, the identity of the author remains undetermined even after all this time. Some credit the half-mythical leader Yu the Great (大禹; Dà Yǔ), who was revered for his introduction of flood control and may have documented tales of the Chinese terrain. Others claim that the text was a collective project compiled over the years, put together by practitioners of the occult or those inquisitive enough to seek out the supernatural. More curiously, since it was positioned as a record of ancient civilisation and environment, its accuracy is a matter of dispute. It just might be possible that the creatures detailed in the Classic of Mountains and Seas once walked the earth.
Scholars of Chinese mythology have commented on the Classic as “not only the origin of history and geography but a great archive of myths.” Indeed, it is almost encyclopaedic, with its accounts of Chinese tribes, their history, religion, sorcery, folklore, and myths in geographically organised chapters. Regarded as the mother of Chinese mythology and inspiration to subsequent fantastical works, many mythical creatures—including the beloved nine-tailed fox of the Land of Green Hills—were first profiled within its pages.
Few know that the text’s references to the famous tribal wars between the Yellow Emperor (黄帝; Huángdì), the Flame Emperor (炎帝; Yándì), and Chīyóu (蚩尤) were where supernatural beings made their entrance. Among them was Yīnglóng (应龙), a winged dragon, foremost of all dragons and parent of all beasts, who was sent into the field in a critical battle. The Classic has it that, in hopes that a drought would hurt his enemies, the Yellow Emperor ordered Yīnglóng to manipulate water with his abilities. At his side was the goddess Bá (魃), whose presence stopped the rain, cracked the land, and withered crops. Together, they triumphed—at the price that neither were to return to the heavens because of the bloodshed and their power over the surroundings.
Of the defeated, a new monster rose in his own right. Xíngtiān (刑天), originally a battle god, sought revenge with the Yellow Emperor in the aftermath of his leaders’ deaths. With a swift swing of the sword, the Emperor decapitated the other god and—in fear of his resurrection—had his head buried in the mountains. He could not have known Xíngtiān survived, albeit in a grotesque way. Henceforth, his nipples served as his eyes, his navel his mouth, and his arms ever danced with his axe and shield. The three were soon to be joined by more of their kind.
A certain air of mystery is common in early literary works on spirits and creatures—or so it would seem. While the original from the East Jin dynasty is long lost, the existing In Search of the Supernatural (搜神记; Sōushén Jì) is a compilation of later texts documenting the same stories. What did survive are the records of author Gàn Bǎo (干寶), who, according to the historical Book of Jin, was inspired to write when he first found his father’s concubine alive after over a decade in the ground, then his brother revived despite having stopped breathing days ago.
The resulting In Search of the Supernatural became a pioneer of the Chinese supernatural genre. Folklore and local legends of spirits and creatures, of miracles and gods, and those who practised the occult filled its pages. In-between were strange events in history. Its narrative, short-story structure, in place of the Classic’s brief descriptions, marked it to be emulated—per the acclaimed Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.
Some of the most intriguing stories of In Search are of the Luò Tóu Mín (落头民) and the Chinese merfolk. It is said that in the Qin dynasty, there lived the Luo Tou Min, whose heads flew and who were worshipped. A general’s maid at the time happened to be of the tribe. Every night, her head left her body in sleep, its ears her wings in flight, and would not return until the predawn hour. Only on the occasion that her neck was covered was it discovered that the head would plunge, verging on death, unless the two were reunited.
At the other end of the land, beyond the South Seas, resided merfolk who went by the name Jiāo Rén (鲛人). The deeps were their home, water their air, and their ways were little different from those of the fish. By day, they weaved as humans did, but when they wept, each fallen tear is a pearl.
By the Ming dynasty, a new form of supernatural writing emerged, known as “gods-and-demons fiction.” The Investiture of the Gods (封神演义; Fēngshén Yǎnyì) is one such piece of writing, a full-length novel combining Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist beliefs that features a full cast of non-human characters. While novelist Xǔ Zhònglín (许仲琳), Taoist scholar Lù Xīxīng (陆西星), and historian and writer Wáng Shìzhēn (王世貞) contest for its authorship, such ambiguity leaves no room for doubt that the Investiture is among the most popular stories of Chinese spirits and creatures.
The tale so often drawn from for portrayals of Chinese supernatural beings begins thus: In a fit of desire for the goddess Nüwa (女娲; Nǚ Wā), King Zhou (紂王; Zhòu Wáng) of the Shāng empire (商朝) spoke aloud his blasphemous thoughts in her temple. Nüwa’s wrath did not descend immediately; instead, she summoned the thousand-year-old, nine-tailed fox Dájǐ (妲己); the nine-headed pheasant spirit Jiǔtóu Zhìjī Jīng (九头雉鸡精); and the jade pipa spirit Pípá Jīng (琵琶精). The lecherous king’s punishment came in the form of the three, disguised as beautiful women, poised to seduce and thus trigger the fall of the empire. In a war between the good and evil, forces of justice astride divine steeds met temptresses and tyrant to restore balance. The Chinese spirits and creatures learnt to assume character.
In the classical Confucian text Analects, there is the quote, “The master Confucius would not discuss these: strange events, violence, heresies, the supernatural.” Qing dynasty scholar Yuán Méi (袁枚) thus decided to take it upon himself to write about all of the above. Considered rather sacrilegious by followers of Confucius’s ideas, What the Master Would Not Discuss consists of what Yuan personally collected from oral accounts and from government issues. These stories of the dead and sometimes the disturbing were to become a wellspring of creators’ imaginations.
It was here that the Chinese vampire, otherwise known as the jiāngshī (僵尸; literally “stiff corpse”), was first systematically detailed. Several conditions result in the second “birth” of a Chinese vampire, primarily that a corpse does not decay, and that the intelligent part of the human soul departs. According to a tomb raider, he once opened coffins to reveal corpses transformed to vampires of the colours white, green, and purple, or were furred, and which—without exception—tore apart men for food. Another entry has it that when a corpse happens to be nourished by the earth, in three months’ time, it sprouts fur of either white or black and—in rare cases—of five colours. Should the common vampire evolve to acquire the ability of flight, it is ever more difficult to deal, posing a terror for the locals, given its tendency to hunt children.
The nature-made monster is, however, not the sole variety. In the markets of Chángshā (长沙), two men made a name for themselves by presenting a dog which spoke and sang all sorts of tunes. Jokingly then, the local official had the dog taken in for a private audience. To his horror, the dog told him it did not know whether it was dog or human. It turned out, as its owners later confessed, that there was a method: First remove a three-year-old’s skin, then spread over the body medicine mixed with the ash of dog fur, until the child eventually grew pelt and tail…
Around the same period in the Qing dynasty, the now world-renowned Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio was published by Pú Sōnglíng (蒲松齡). Perhaps different from its predecessors in that its spirits are often humanised, gentle, even romantic, it is regardless hailed as the pinnacle of the classic Chinese supernatural genre, a work that opened the door to the possibility of man-supernatural relationships.
That is not to say Strange Stories is without chilling moments. In “Painted Skin,” a scholar took home a lone beauty despite his wife’s protests, only to witness a green monster with saw-like teeth painting on human skin when he peeked into her window. The monster put on the skin and resumed its masquerade, and once it realised its exposure, leapt at the scholar’s bed, carved open his chest, devoured his heart—as befit a man who lusted for more.
The beautiful Niè Xiǎoqiàn (聂小倩) is a different creature. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the ghost was bound by another monster to seduce men, yet upon falling in love with the honesty of scholar Níng Cáichén (宁采臣), she risked herself to save his life. The scholar repaid her. From under the nose of her master, he stole her bones, to be treated with rites in her hometown. Niè Xiǎoqiàn was so freed from the clutches of the monster, and there she stayed at Níng Cáichén’s side, long enough that his family was convinced by her good nature to allow a marriage across the barrier of death.
In modern times, at the heart of much-beloved supernatural novels and on-screen productions, the same wonder, same fear, same romance of these Chinese classics still thrives. One of these days, the urge may well hit for you to look again to the mountains and the seas, up in the skies or under the earth, for those faces that are as the texts describe.