Chinese Ghosts

IN the beaten way of reviewing one occasionally comes upon some rare flower that has the delightful surprise of an exotic. Such a find is this little volume of Chinese romance.1 It contains only six short tales. They are not translations, but built up on a basis of Oriental tradition out of distinctly Chinese motives, and in the atmosphere and scenery of the Flowery Kingdom; a mosaic, such as a modern artificer might frame of antique marbles, not with the skill of the old workmen, it may be, but the color remaining as rich as ever, and the faults of the blending not too perceptible to an eye untrained in native harmonies. One of the tales is a bit of folk-lore interpreting the sound of the Great Bell. The emperor had ordered this bell to be manufactured with alloys of brass, silver, and gold; but the metals would not mingle, and, after a double failure, the noble upon whom the task had been laid was in danger of losing his life if the third attempt should prove unsuccessful. His daughter, thereupon, learning from an astrologer what was necessary, threw herself at the last moment into the caldron, and her nurse, who sat beside, in trying to prevent her, caught only her pearl - and - flower-embroidered shoe. The sound of the bell, “ Ko-Ngai,” is the maiden’s name ; and when the soft, low moaning, in which the deep tones tremble away, is heard, the Chinese mothers say to their little ones, “ Listen ! that is Ko-Ngai crying for her shoe ! that is Ko-Ngai calling for her shoe ! ” The story grows dull under our hand, but the bald abstract shows the turn at the end which gives it childish charm.

This, however, is, as has been said, no more than a pretty bit of folk-lore. Another tale, which makes a finer appeal, and is really the best of all, is called The Story of Ming-Y. It belongs in the realm of the loves of dead women for some beautiful youth. Ming-Y is a model young man, the Chinese ideal, related to his civilization in the same way as the heroes of the Greek plays to theirs; and the legend relates how he was fascinated by an incarnation of one of the ghosts of the tombs by the highway, — Sie-Thao, the beautiful wanton, the love of the poet Kao, dead five hundred years before. The exquisite refinement of this narrative, its pure poetic loveliness, its freedom from any gross or revolting element, and the subtlety with which the apparition is made to take form out of nature, and to fade back into the blue sky, the blossomed trees, and the susurrus of the breeze, are extraordinary. It calls up involuntarily the awkward and often horrible handling of the same subject in our vampire stories, one of the worst of which was inflicted upon us last Christinas, and even Keats’s treatment of the Lamia myth is coarsened beside it. Notwithstanding the subject, the study is so delicately done that, while the figures do not lose distinctness, it might stand as a mere allegory of the birth of pure passion under the brooding of natural beauty. It is more like a vision of springtime than a superstition of the tomb, and it is characterized by the best qualities of idyllic romanticism.

A third tale, which relates Tong-yong’s history, may recall to some of our readers the mediæval Old English Legend of Bristowe which Professor Child modernized so admirably a short time ago, and may provoke a profitable comparison with it. Both stories celebrate a son’s piety to a dead father ; in both the son sells himself into slavery, and afterwards receives a worldly reward. The grim ecclesiasticism of the English story, with its practical denouement of marriage with the master’s daughter, contrasts heavily and in an unlovely way with the delight in nature and the nearness of the gods to man in the Chinese version. It would be curious to inquire which is the more moral, but there can be no question which is the more imaginative.

The character of the remaining tales may be left to private discovery. The style is not equally successful in all, as the author’s consciously assumed mannerism becomes over-accented, and sometimes passes the border-line, as in the use of the marvelous phrase “flesh horripilated by a Thought ” as a refrain. The subject of one of them, moreover, involves conceptions which, though discreetly veiled, had better always be reckoned among the mysteries of learning to which only the initiated are rightly admitted. The six taken together have much variety, and illustrate diversely Chinese ways of looking at things. Perhaps the chief charm, after all, lies in that glow of pure color which is transfused through the imagination of the Orient; but customs, morals, and thought are substantially present, and the poetry of the race is expressed with great clearness and a pathetic winning power. If the author should write again, it is to be hoped that he will grow more simple rather than more artificial.

  1. Some Chinese Ghosts. By LAFCADIO HEARN. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1887.