On Chinese Horror: Early Zhi Guai (Tales of the Strange)

2014’s Zhongyuan or Ghost Month, took place in August, and Xiayuan was not until December. Nevertheless, with the crisp scent and keenness of the autumn air, I felt the delicious anticipation for All Hallow’s Eve. So I started a series on the Chinese horror genre. This was the first in the series, now with updates and revisions. It will focus on attitude towards the supernatural and the history of this kind of storytelling.

Early Chinese society revolved around shamanistic beliefs and rituals. The preeminence of Fangshu (a wide-scoping indigenous practice of sorcery that could be considered a predecessor of Daoist cultivation) during the Warring States (5th to 3rd century B.C.E.) led to a lot of popular legends about gods and immortals. During the Qin and Han era, these legends circulated widely. As witchcraft and occult practices became fashionable in the late Han, and Buddhism spread into China over from 1st century C.E.,  by the time of the Wei and Jin dynasties, there was a large amount of literary output on the supernatural. These were not novels per se, but accounts of unusual everyday encounters, for the supernatural were considered part of life. The sort of street-market witchcraft and fortunetelling we now see portrayed in historical C Dramas, generated a wealth of hearsay and folk tale that provided a rich resource for exploring the lingyi (paranormal) in the centuries to follow.

Much of this literature on the supernatural is now lost, but their existence and contents are affirmed by other books such as records and histories. The great Lu Xun in his famous A Brief History of The Chinese Novel, writes about many of these lost works. One of the earliest is Legends of Strange Through History (lieyi zhuan) by Cao Pi, Emperor Wendi of Wei. Another is the Duke of Linchuan Liu Yiqing’s Records of Hidden and the Visible (you ming lu). The Jin era gave us Zu Chongzhi’s Diary of the Strange (shuyi ji) and Xun Shi’s Records of Ghosts and Spirits (ling gui zhi), which adapted many tales of the strange from outside of China that were popular at the time. Works such as Zu Taizhi’s now obsolete Records of the Strange or, Zhi Guai, as it was known in Chinese, gave this early prototype of indigenous Chinese horror literature the name by which they are known today.

The authors of zhi guai literature were often literati or religious persons. According to historical records, there were nine major Buddhist works concerning the supernatural, of which only one survives, the preacher Yan Zhitui’s Records of Wronged Souls (yuangui lu).

Some of the best surviving secular works include the acclaimed Records of Diverse Matters (bowu zhi) by court scholar Zhang Hua, a well and broadly informed writer, who documented popular legends and hearsay about strange lands and unusual happenings, both ancient and current. Another, which is still well known today, is In Search of the Supernatural (soushen ji) by Gan Bao, a mid-Jin era  official scribe from Henan. These twenty volumes are accounts of gods, spirits and other supernatural beings that incorporate discussions on the principles of the Five Elements.  A subsequent ten volumes of In Further Search of the Supernatural (hou soushen ji), attributed to Tao Qian, take a broader approach to the topic. A valuable resource for lore research, which I have turned to myself when writing my about deities, is Records of the Forgotten (shiyi ji) by Wang Jia from Gansu. Of the ten surviving volumes, nine of them are tales from the time of Fuxi to Eastern Jin, and the last about the nine mystical mountains such as Kunlun.

Although we revel in them now, at the time, zhi guai writings were hardly considered formal or high literature, and the works that have survived, have been trimmed or lost in various editions. That is why, dear authors, it is vital to keep a record of your first draft.



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