Which Classic? (ch. 1)

By Zhang Nanzhuang 張南莊[1]

Translated by Yichun Xu and Frederick Bowman

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2019)

Cover of the 1928 Qingyun Book Company 卿雲圖書公司 edition of Which Classic?, with Wu Zhihui 吴稚晖’s name on the cover. Source: Baike.

Which Classic? by Zhang Nanzhuang 張南莊, is a ten-chapter comic novella written in the traditional linked-chapter form. Circulated in manuscript form for several decades, it was first published by Shenbao Guan in 1878 and remained an obscure book until it was rediscovered by May Fourth scholars, such as Liu Bannong 劉半農, Lu Xun 魯迅, and Wu Zhihui 吳稚暉, who recognized it as one of the earliest extant novels to make extensive use of Wu-dialect vocabulary. Which Classic? is composed in a peculiar hybrid language that makes use of Wu vernacular vocabulary, classical Chinese, and plain Chinese (白話文). Its heterogeneous language is the source of much of the novella’s humor. Frequently a given phrase will have one meaning when read as plain Chinese but another when read in Wu vernacular. This implied second reading is often silly or obscene and serves to add to the irreverent and tongue-in-cheek tone of the work as a whole. In this translation of the first chapter of Which Classic?, we have attempted to convey these multiple linguistic levels as often as possible, but such plays on words are, of course, a particular challenge to the translator. The translators are working on a rendering of the entire text.

Chapter One:

Living Ghost prays for a son at Viscera Temple;
Living Dead is born in the Village of Three Families


No Great Principles of Heaven and Earth,
No concern for niceties of language.
For the unwary reader, just nonsense;
Your humble fabulist can offer but
Drivel, bollocks,
True Absurdity!
–“As in A Dream”

Ever since Pan Gu, the first man, separated heaven and earth, the universe has consisted of three realms: the upper realm of immortals, the mundane realm of mortals, and the underworld. Led by the Jade Emperor, the divine troops in the upper realm of immortals lived in numerous mansions built above clouds, constructed out of the air itself. Not much has transpired in these upper realms since the Monkey King created a tremendous uproar in the Palace of Heaven; the celestial realm thus requires no further illustration. The middle realm, undoubtedly, is the bustling world where people of today dwell. Stories of loyalty, filial piety, chastity, and righteousness, of the vicissitudes of life, partings and reunions, and of evil, treachery, theft and counterfeiting— all things delightful, frightful, laughable, despicable— are simply too many to exhaust. In the underworld lives King Yama with all manner of spirits and ghostly beings. Indeed, King Yama is just another ghost himself: leading his retinue of ghostly pawns—ox heads, horse faces, and imps up through the infernal magistracy—he established the realm of the nether world, founded its capital behind Mount Yin, and, establishing his seat therein, proclaimed himself king unopposed.

This Mount Yin, unparalleled in size and height, is the most famous mountain in the underworld. One side of it faces the abyss of misery. Indeed, it stretches high up above layers of clouds and reaches all the way down below ground. At the foot of the mountain is an endless valley, encircled on all sides by great mountain ranges. In the middle of this valley is a vast plain, called Ghost Valley, in which dwell numerous ghosts scattered in villages here and there: among them live scholars, farmers, craftsmen, businessmen, and so on.

Among those villages, let us focus on one place, called Village of Three Families. In the village lived a landlord whose name was Living Ghost. His forbears were born in poverty. He, however, had become an upstart thanks to a windfall, and over time he had made himself a veritable ancient manor, complete with at least three courtyards and four main halls. Here he lived a comfortable life with a full complement of maids and servants at his beck and call. His wife, She Ghost, was the sister of Handsome Ghost, an underworld scholar from Hangdog Bay. The couple, already well on in years, had not given birth to any children.

An illustration from the 1933 Beixin shuju edition of Which Classic?

One day, it was Living Ghost’s deathday. She Ghost prepared a couple of dishes and bought a jug of wine light as water to celebrate her husband’s death-span. Ever dutiful, Handsome Ghost came to offer his brother-in-law deathday felicitations. Everybody was seated around the table when the dishes were laid out: a hogshead boiled in its own blood; roasted banty rooster; unshelled hermit crabs; eel braised inside a brush pen; and a duck whose neck would not be broken. Big bowls and small plates overspread the table; gaiety filled their hearts with each swig they took.

Just when the celebration was at its liveliest, Living Ghost said to his wife: “You and me, we don’t spend a penny on ourselves. Through toil and moil we’ve built our fortune. Now we are halfway to our graves, without a son or a daughter. Yet, drinking and enjoying ourselves, what’s the point? Aren’t we acting like people who buy dried fish to release back into the water—such a waste of our care and trouble!”

“True as they say, ‘give birth before thirty if a brilliant son is what you are hoping for,’ you two are not yet in your seventies or eighties,” said Handsome Ghost. “It’s not too late if you still wish for a son; what’s there to worry about? The other day, a newly-dead spoke of a method for getting a son in the human world: just burn incense before the God of Fertility and make a small donation, and your wish will come true; it is that effective! Why not try it out?”

“What nonsense!” said Living Ghost. “Since when does the Divine Power help humans carry on their family lines?”

“Say not that the Divine Power does not work,” said She Ghost. “Now that we’ve learned the method, what can we possibly lose for trying? If we do end up having a child or two, we would not have lived our life as ghosts in vain.”

“Surely there is no harm in trying. But where would be a good place to pray?” asked Living Dead.

“I have heard: In the Village of Mengpo, named after Mrs. Meng, there stands a Viscera Temple. It is the seat of a most hallowed, most holy God,” said Handsome Ghost. “If you wish to pray, that’s the place to go.”

“The Village of Mengpo is quite a long way from here. Bit of a pain, isn’t it?” said Living Dead.

“Long as it may seem, it is all waterway,” said Handsome Ghost. “Sitting on a boat, it’s like a spring outing. Nothing painful about it.”

“Since you brought it up, why don’t you come along? It would be more fun,” said Living Ghost.

“Why don’t we wait for you to settle on a good date?  I will be there when you hit the road,” said Handsome Ghost.

“No time like the present—let’s go tomorrow,” said Living Ghost.

“That makes perfect sense. But we do need to see to our provisions if we are leaving tomorrow; simply to avoid ‘getting on the carriage when the horses are taking a piss’—hurry-scurry,” said Handsome Ghost. “I just need to tell everyone back home, and I’ll be good.”

“Naturally,” said Living Ghost. While they were talking, they drank a couple more cups of Lost-a-Bet wine. After having some short-gevity noodles, Handsome Ghost bid farewell and went home.

Living Ghost then went to buy some candles and the like at the ghost store and came home with a Going-in-the-Opposite-Direction boat; all preparations were seen to. Next day, Living Ghost asked a ghostly lad to place his luggage on board while he prepared breakfast. Right at that moment, Handsome Ghost made his appearance. Once they had eaten their fill of delectable pearly white rice, they arrived at the vessel’s bow, bidding the lad to come along.

No sooner had Handsome Ghost stepped on the boat with his back foot than it started to sway violently and nearly capsized. He immediately lifted his foot and said: “What is the matter with this boat? It’s wobbly as hell!”

Living Ghost sneered at him, “Aren’t you an renowned underworld Confucian scholar? How come you don’t even remember what Mencius said!”

“What about Mencius? I don’t seem to recall,” said Handsome Ghost.

“Says ‘Mencius’: there is no boat that wobbleth not. How can it be steady if you step on it with such great force?”[2]

Handsome Ghost also laughed at himself, “I might have been a Confucian scholar, but those Four Books and Five Classics are already like a previous life to me. How can I remember that stuff?”

Heartily exchanging such banter, they got on board, and the boatman steered them along into the canal. Rowing proceeded at a leisurely pace, so they seemed to inch forward.

Living Ghost spoke up: “It is a long way to the Village of Mengpo from here. If you just keep plodding along with your oar like that, how will we ever get there? Why don’t you put up the sail?”

The boatman replied, “When the sail is up, one needs to observe the wind. Now we are still in this catacomb of a canal and the path ahead is full of twists and turns, so we just can’t count on the wind to carry us along in one direction. How are we supposed to use the sail? If you are really in a hurry, it’d be faster to just let my lads go ashore and carry the towrope. We can use the sail when we arrive at Nai River.”

“Since you said so, tow away then!” said Living Ghost.

So the boatman stopped the boat. The lads in the boatman’s employ jumped ashore after they passed the towrope through a hole in the bow. Living Ghost then asked the ghostly lad he had hired to help move the boat along. The lad in the boat picked up the punting pole, planted its end on the shore, and gave a great push with all his might. However, with the way the currents were flowing, the boat moved directly toward the opposite bank.

The boatman said, “How can this young’un be so clumsy? What do you think you’re doing, straining at this thing like it’s a freighter? A light vessel like this moves at the slightest touch! When you steer a boat, you need to know the currents in order to move the boat forward, not sideward.  Please sit, no more steering for you.”

After he had laid down the punting pole, the ghostly lad sat down on the bow with one foot on the opposite knee and watched the boat-towers weaving this way and that on shore to keep their ropes from becoming entangled. When they reached the end of the canal, they saw an angry toad, raising its head to watch a group of swans flying above and perhaps dreaming about the taste of swan meat.[3] Seeing their boat pass, it jumped into the clear water, but ended up being gripped in the teeth of a Saint Jude’s Watersnake. The ghostly lad hastily picked up the mop set aside for washing one’s unmentionables and was about to hit the snake.

Living Ghost spoke up, “The snake passes through; the dog walks his way. This is only natural. Why must you hit it?” Before Living Ghost even finished, the ghostly lad had already swung down with the mop, and it struck the snake directly in the vitals. The snake gave up the ghost, borne along by the canal water like a passing whisper. The toad also floated away, carried by the wings of wind and current.

The boat then exited the canal and was soon drifting along the Nai River as the whirlwind suddenly turned in a favorable direction and wafted them onward. All manner of boats could be seen floating along: some shifting their course for a favorable wind and others at the mercy of the currents, but all of them their sails fluttering. Living Ghost was enraptured at having met such favorable winds and called to the boatman to raise the sail. This he did, and no sooner was the whole twelve-fold sail deployed than the boat was off like a shot.

Handsome Ghost said to Living Ghost, “You’ve been feeling bored for a while. Now the wind and the currents are both in our favor, aren’t you glad?”

As they were chatting, laughing, and having a good time, they saw the boatman rise up in a hectic huff to put down the sail.

Living Ghost asked, “We finally have a decent tailwind. What do you need to lower the sail for?”

The boatman replied, “In front of us is the Nai River Bridge.”

Living Ghost took a look ahead, but only could barely discern a blurry, roughly bridge-shaped object somewhere far ahead. So he said, “The bridge still far away. Why are you in such a hurry?”

The boatman replied, “It’s an old navigator’s trick. The sail needs to be put down three li away from the bridge. Only then can the boat keep true to its course when it reaches the bridge.”

Living Ghost could do nothing, and just let the boatman put down the sail and row leisurely at his own pace.

Soon they neared the bridge and saw an old ghost— around his neck he wore a string of prayer beads and around his waist was tied a strip of yellow cloth. Holding his testicles carefully with both hands, he crossed the bridge slowly with long, careful strides.

Living Ghost laughed and said, “Look at this old ghost. Why doesn’t he hold the railing of the bridge? Instead, he’s cupping his manhood as if he’s afraid someone is going to bite it off.”

The boatman said, “You gentlemen may not know, but recently a puckish sprite has taken to haunting the Nai River Bridge. He has a penchant for playing on a man’s penis like a bamboo flute. If he sees a man crossing the bridge with it hang freely, he’ll suddenly burst out and take a good bite at his tool. And once he gets his teeth on it he won’t let go—it’s many a man who’s had his bitten clean off. Even if you carry yours safely like that old fellow, there are still occasions when he bites off the berries while leaving the twig. That’s why those people are all carrying their privates when they cross the bridge.”

Handsome Ghost said, “Indeed, every mountain has a tiger, every castle a king. In our own Hangdog Bay, a peculiar creature has recently appeared—Brother Earthworm or some such thing. His particular habit is to lie flat in hiding at the road’s end or at its head with his legs stretched out. Should some unfortunate passers-by happen to catch a glimpse of or step on him unawares, he lifts both his ends up in the air and belches forth a strange vapor that makes the poor creatures’ testicles swell up until they are as big as legs! They say that once struck by this foul beast, one can’t even walk right!” While they were talking, the boat had already passed the bridge. With full sail up, the boat moved forward.

When they arrived at the Village of Mengpo, the boatman brought the boat to rest. They all stepped ashore, and the ghosts went to find Viscera Temple, with the ghostly lad bringing all their offerings along. No need to describe this in great detail.

As for the Village of Mengpo, it used to be nothing but a desolate little town. But no sooner had Mrs. Meng opened her teahouse than it instantly bustled with all sorts of spectral good-for-nothings drinking tea and having a good time. Envious of Mrs. Meng’s business, her neighbors saw ghostly green. Everybody wanted a piece of the pie: some opened a ghost pub, some a ghost tofu shop, and some a ghost store selling southern delicacies. Not that they didn’t know the old saying, “it is always easier to start a business than to maintain it,” but they were all too envious to care. New houses rose here and there; everyday a new business opened. Before long, the Village of Mengpo had developed into an enormous ghost city. Where before you saw nary a soul, now it was truly where the spirits gathered, the most hustling and bustling place.

Now, Living Ghost and Handsome Ghost found their way to the teahouse and saw a shooing-off sign hanging on its door, on which three misused words were written: Sa Voir Faire.[4] Yet, the flow of clientele with their refined taste for tea went on in an infinity loop, like an ouroboros. Both the front and back doorsteps were so trodden down that even their bricks had started to wear off.

Handsome Ghost said: “Never have we had the fortune to taste the legendary Mengpo tea. Now that we’re finally here, we shall not miss it. Let’s go in and give it a try.”

Together with their ghostly lad, the three of them entered. They seated themselves, resting their legs on the table and sprawling out. As soon as the server took notice of them, he went to make them three cups of Mengpo tea and served it to them at their table. “Would you like to order some snacks?” he asked.

“What do you have here? Anything we might be interested in?” Handsome Ghost asked.

“We have lop-headed steamed rolls, bone-dry rice balls, super-crispety spit-lollies, and cakes made out of morning dew— these are all popular items,” the server replied.

“It would be great if you have vegetarian options as I am going to pray afterward,” said Living Ghost.

“The spit-lollies and the cakes are vegetarian,” the server replied.

“You have to slobber too much over the spit-lollies for them to be properly blended. We’ll have some cakes,” said Living Ghost.

The server returned carrying a wooden tray above his head filled with cakes, which the three of them gobbled down in a flash. After paying for the tea, they got up and asked where Viscera Temple was.

The server pointed in the direction of the temple and said, “Just step outside and go straight, walk all the way to the end of the road, then make a turn. You will see the temple once you find yourself on the outskirts of the city.”

Following his directions, they arrived at the temple, where they found the two doors of main gate half-closed, a crack opening between them. Walking up to the threshold, Handsome Ghost pushed the doors open, and they all entered the temple grounds, where they beheld the divine beings enshrined there. In the middle was seated a Filthy Amitabha, beaming with joy, a jowly smile on his face and his flabby stomach protruding. On either sides stood four giant guardian gods putting on their best tough act. Behind them was the main hall where there were seated three all-beholding, all-bestowing Benighted Bodhisattvas. In the middle was the Celestial Worthy of Boundless Infinity: his browless eyes were wide open, his maw gaping, and a row of yellowed teeth exposed. A pair of hands were sticking out of his cavernous throat: the left hand held aloft the Dharani for Dummies and the right hand was clenched into the fist of instant death. On the left was the celestial worthy, Devil-May-Care: blushed badger face, two pliant ears, drilled holes below the cheek with several stiff whiskers riveted from within. On the right was the Celestial Worthy of the Wretched: a tightly-drawn face indeed, with surface tension like a bowl of cold porridge, two fire-burned eyebrows tied into a couple of tightening hound-trapping-knots, and an incense cone for a nose tip. A stake protruded from each nostril: a wooden bell hung from the eastern stake and a snare drum was set up on the western one. A couple of monks, with lopsided mouths, sat to the side. Beating their wooden fish with wooden clubs, they were chanting the Diamond Sutra in gibberish. Upon seeing the guests and knowing they must have come to pray, the monks hastily got up and welcomed them. One took over the offering basket, lit a reverse-poured candle and placed the broken incense sticks in the burner. Others rushed blindly to strike the wooden bell and beat the snare drum, assisting them while they prayed. Down on his knees, Living Ghost made his petition in front of the Divine Power. Only after he had knocked his head on the ground many times did he rise and greet the monks.

After making some ghostly chitchat with the monks, they were about to sit down. But then Handsome Ghost said, “What comes last is always the best; the grandest Buddhas are always seated in the rear hall. Why don’t we all go take a look?” A monk accompanied them to the back of the main hall. Right there stood the newly built Viscera Hall. In the middle of the hall sat a Namo Buddhaya with a protruding lower lip. On both sides stood eighteen block-headed Arhats. Living Ghost instantly threw himself on his knees.

Handsome Ghost said, “You are truly devoted, my brother. You pay your respect only so long as it’s a Buddha of great importance.”

“Since we are here to pray, who are we to pick and choose?” said Living Ghost.

After Living Ghost finished his prayers, Handsome Ghost said, “Are you going to count the Arhats?”

“How?” asked Living Ghost.

“Just count them in order. If you stop at a good one, it’s a good sign, a bad one, then it’s a bad sign,” said Handsome Ghost.

“After you,” said Living Ghost.

Handsome Ghost did this, and it was the Goose-Egg Buddha he landed on. Living Ghost did the same, but he got the Big-Ear Buddha.

The monk said, “Congratulations, gentlemen! This is a stroke of good fortune. These two are blessed ones.”

“Wait. Let’s see which Buddha I will get then,” said the ghostly lad.

He too did his count but in the end found himself looking at a Buddha with an impish look, hardly a particularly imposing figure. “Is this Buddha of Universal Salvation?” he asked.

“No,” the monk replied, “it is called The God of Smartass Slug-A-Beds!”

Just when they were talking and laughing, Handsome Ghost felt a burst of pain in his belly and farted. Reaching down to the source of the emission, he said, “No problem with letting one rip like that, I guess, but we should always try to contain ourselves. Where are your facilities? Think I should waddle over there.”

The monk pointed in the direction of a narrow alley and said: “Cut through this Flesh Alley and you will find it.”

Handsome Ghost did what he was told and indeed, there it stood: a giant, sunken, literal crock of shit, covered all over by a great stone slab save a small open area at its front—this would be the target. A group of mice were clustered around the crock, looking to turn someone’s last meal into their next. Seeing Handsome Ghost walk over, they quickly dispersed. Handsome Ghost was daunted by the enormity before him—how could he possibly climb up there?  Nonetheless he took a quick running start and valiantly leapt up onto the latrine’s edge. Looking down, he saw hundreds and thousands of swarming maggots coursing through endless tracts of excreta. In a hurry, Handsome Ghost quickly raised his business end skyward, his asshole gaping bowl-like. He then proceeded to squat on the tank and let out a series of eighteen rumbling farts. No longer striving to contain himself, he let loose with a force that nearly wrenched his scallion-shaped guts out along with their contents.

Thus unburdened, he stood up, tied his pants, and was ready to leave. At that moment, he suddenly heard a noise from inside the pit. Upon closer inspection, he saw a dog lapping up maggots in the latrine—whatever bottom the poor creature had descended to, it must certainly be lower than rock bottom. Taking up a bamboo stick standing to one side, Handsome Ghost planned to jab at the dog with it. Seeing what was coming, the dog let out a great bellow—HUUUAAAANNNGG!—and spewed forth a mouthful of stinky maggots. Enraged, Handsome Ghost whirled the stick around and landed a solid blow on the dog, the excreta all stirred up around him and distilling the most ungodly stink. Vexed, the dog leapt up. Afraid that he would be dragged down into the fetid depths below, Handsome Ghost speedily stepped aside. The dog jumped out thorough an open area and ran away, upon which Handsome Ghost put down the stick and walked back to Viscera Hall.

Living Ghost was sitting on a long bench and talking to a monk. Just as he saw Handsome Ghost  approach, he collected the sweat of his brow and gave it to the monk for the ritual ceremony. The monk also scraped some gold off the Buddha statue and gave it to Living Ghost. “Take this with you. If any children in your family have the misfortune to contract an acute disease and an obtuse doctor, just feed them some soup with this gold in it. They will then recover.”

Living Ghost took the gold and thanked the monk many times before they bid farewell. The monk walked with them all the way to the temple gates and then returned.

Living Ghost and Handsome Ghost made their way back to the boat. It was already dark when they arrived. In haste, they turned the bow back riverwards and started rowing. Yet the Stygian whirlwinds hadn’t stopped blowing, and due to the persistent headwind, they did not make it back to Village of Three Families for a couple of days. Living Ghost and Handsome Ghost went ashore and headed back home; the boatman and the ghost lad carried their luggage ashore and received their fee. I need say nothing of how Living Ghost told She Ghost everything about his experience at the temple and how Handsome Ghost went back home afterward.

Strangely, that night, She Ghost nipped her nose tip and had a dream. She dreamed about a God, leading a neatly dressed young lad into her room and saying, “Thy prayer for a child hath reached unto me in my mercy. Today I bestow upon thee a son. He is a young scholar descended from the mundane world. He shall enjoy a life of bounty and blessing. Thou shalt minister unto him with all thy care.” Then, She Ghost saw the young lad walk up to her bed, take away her quilt, and crawl toward her nether regions. Anxiously, she tried to push him away. But how can it be helped? He had already succeeded in entering her belly.

Stunned, she woke up in a cold sweat and told Living Ghost what had happened. Living Ghost said, “Since the deity has made his appearance, it is safe to believe that we are going to have a son. Only I wonder what the deity looked like.”

“I couldn’t see very clearly; only that he had his eye brows tied into knots,” said She Ghost.

“Say no more. It must be the Celestial Worthy of the Wretched,” said Living Ghost.

From that moment on, She Ghost was pregnant with a ghost baby. In the tenth month, she gave birth to a little ghost. The couple were ecstatic, as though they had found the Pearl of Great Price. Not only did Handsome Ghost now have a nephew, but it was his prompting his brother-in-law to visit the temple that made it possible. How could he not be all aglow at the news? He immediately bought a pair of addled chickens, a length of cock meat, several dried fish, and a plateful of eldritch duck eggs. Having a young lad carry them for him, he put on his finest deathday shroud and a tall hat and went over to his sister’s. It so happened that Living Ghost was holding a ritual ceremony for the ghost baby on his third day. Handsome Ghost bowed with his hands folded and congratulated Living Ghost. He then sat a while. Afterwards, he went to greet his sister in her room.

She Ghost said, “You are just in time, my brother. You are a scholar, aren’t you? Why don’t you think of a ghostly name for your nephew?”

Handsome Ghost thought for a moment and said, “Why don’t we call him Living Dead?”

Charmed by the proposed name, Living Ghost said, “Excellent! It’s settled then.”

Now, a ghostly lad walked in and said, “Our esteemed guests have all arrived.”

Living Ghost and Handsome Ghost thus went out to receive the guests while the banquet was laid out and everyone seated. Warmed and cheery with wine, they proceeded to their feast and bouts of drinking games.

Among the guests was the couple’s next-door neighbor, whose name was Gloomy Ghost. He asked Living Ghost, “I heard the other day that you went to pray for a son at Viscera Temple, and the deity answered your call. I was wondering where you got this wonderful idea and how you did it. Would you be able to give us a better idea of how it went?”

Living Ghost said, “At first I also had no idea. One newly arrived among the dead mentioned this method that is used in the human world. So, I gave it try. No more than burning incense and making a wish. To my surprise, it really worked.”

Another next door neighbor, whose name was Nosy Ghost, chimed in, “What prayer did you say to have received such a quick response?”

“At that time, I wasn’t expecting it would really work,” replied Living Ghost, “so I just said that, ‘If I ever get a son, I will make that God my household deity and build a ghost temple in the village to make offerings to him.’ Though I did say it, the promise was too big, and with the time so short, I haven’t started building it yet. After all, it was all just words. I suppose the deity wouldn’t mind terribly if I don’t carry them out.”

“You must not think that way,” said Gloomy Ghost. “An old saying goes, ‘Better to make a promise to a mortal, never to a God.’ Since you’ve said what you’ve said, you can’t simply take the words back. Surely you don’t intend to burn bridges. What are you going to say to that God if you are faced with him someday? Anyway, you’re rich, and, besides, there is no need to build a temple as grand as the one in the Village of Mengpo. Truly, lion dancers from the countryside only perform in the countryside—do no more than you can. A small temple with three or four courtyards will do.”

“The rest of the matter is probably not difficult to manage; only the right site for the temple— some geomantically appropriate spot and one without obstruction— is indeed hard to find,” said Living Ghost.

“On the west side of the village there is an empty lot where the grasses grow to a full ghost’s height. Why not build it there? A convenient location for anyone who wants to pray. Wouldn’t it be great?” said Gloomy Ghost.

Nosy Ghost clapped his hands and feet and burst into laughter, “Terrific! You get started quickly, and then we can all go there to pray.”

“No need to hurry. Let’s wait till my son is one month old, and then I’ll pick an auspicious day to do it. Surely it won’t be too late.”

“Indeed,” said the rest of the ghosts. They then all bid farewell and went back their homes.

After sending off the guests, Living Ghost went back and told She Ghost. She too was pleased with the idea.

Life went on easily, and before anybody knew it was already the next month. After offerings were made to the Celestial God of Longevity, Living Dead was carried out for a haircut. The barber poured out a spoon of cold water over his head, and then shaved it with a broken-off piece of a water tank. Hair parted from skin instantly through applying the cold water, and soon Living Dead was completely bald, his head giving off a ghostly sheen. The couple then made plenty of stubby, staff-shaped rice-cakes to send to their distant relations. After that, they decided upon an auspicious day, selected the construction materials, and started building the ghost temple on that empty plot of land. There is of course no need to illustrate all the proceedings in detail.

The temple is built, but not to uniformly auspicious results: not only does it cost money and time but Living Ghost will receive a whole heap of misery for all his expenses. If you would like to know what happens next, please proceed to the next chapter.

Messrs.-Tangle-and-Between-the-Lines comments: as resigning one’s office marks the end of all cares, so the birth of a child marks the end of one’s dissatisfactions. Since Living Ghost has become a rich landlord, it’s only natural for him to expect to raise children to support him in his old age. Yet, unable to make his wish come true relying on his own abilities, he can only leave this matter to Heaven’s decree. Only by hearing the report of one newly-dead did he then realized that life, not only death, could be brought to the realms below. Hence, despite the long distance, he took a boat and went, wholeheartedly. He said his prayers and made his donations. Even though one could sneer at him for praying only when he wants something from the Buddha, his effort was readily accepted by the Divine Power who appeared in a dream and bestowed on him a son. Therefore, She Ghost got pregnant and gave birth to a ghost baby whom they expect to take care of them in their old age and to carry on the family line. Now they need worry no more that no one will shoulder the responsibilities. Wouldn’t you say that the divinity is powerful and the Buddha a font of blessings? She Ghost said: “Say not that Divine Power does not work.” It is absolutely true.


[1] The present translation is based on the 1994 edition published by Tianjin guji chubanshe 天津古籍出版社, which itself is based on 1933 edition by 北新书局. The Chinese text is also available at Chinese Text Project. It is developed from a final project for a translation class taught by Prof. Patricia Sieber at Ohio State University and has benefited greatly before publication by comments from Prof. Kirk Denton. The translators wish to express their gratitude to Professors Sieber and Denton.

[2] See Mencius 孟子, “Lianghui wang” (梁惠王): there is no ruler of a State that attains his kingship not 然而不王者未之有也. When pronounced in Wu topolect—zoe ‘r feh waon tse vi tsyu yeu gha— it sounds like ‘there is no un-wobbly boat 船而不洸者未之有也; the present translation, there is no boat that wobbleth not, seeks to represent the polyvalence of the Sinographs.

[3] An allusion to a Chinese proverb, “a toad wishes for swan meat” (癞蛤蟆想吃天鵝肉), meaning someone does not have an accurate self-evaluation, hence wishing for something unrealistic.

[4] The Chinese characters are “lai shan guan” (來搧館). Lai shan in Wu dialect can mean “well done” or “capable.”