Episode 153: Nie Xiaoqian – part1

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Today we will talk about one of most famous stories from the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊斋志异 from the Qing dynasty 清朝 published in 1740. The name of the story is Nie Xiaoqian 聂小倩, which has been adapted into numerous films and TV series.


In the book, it says there was a young man from Zhejiang 浙江 province named Ning Caichen 宁采臣. He was a straightforward, generous and principled. These three words are important and his personalities changed his life. He always says to people, “I would never have a second woman. ” So he was married and even though it was normal in the ancient China to have more than one concubines, he didn’t have want the desire to have another woman in his life.


Once, he went to the place called Jinhua 金华 and took a rest in a temple in the suburb. The temple was gorgeous however there were weeds growing widely in the yard and it seemed like there weren’t people for a long time. On the west and east sides, there were rooms for monks of which the doors were closed. There was a small house in the south. The lock looked new. There were bamboos growing in the corner of the yard. Wide lotus flowers covered the whole pool. Ning Caichen really enjoyed the quiet there and decided to stay there since it was the time before the Imperial Examination that all the hotels were expansive.

About the sunset, another person came into the temple and tried to get inside the house in the south. Ning Caichen made a bow and told him that he was thinking of staying here as well. The person replied, “there isn’t an owner here. I am like you just to stay here a few days. If you would like to stay here too, that would be great! ” Ning Caichen was glad and found some straw and put them on the ground as his bed.


That night, the moon was bright. Ning Caichen chatted with the other person in the hallway. The other person said, “My last name is Yan 燕 and my first name is ChiXia 赤霞.” Ning Caichen thought he might be going to attend the exam like me although his accent doesn’t sound locale. “Where are you from?” The other person replied sincerely , “I am from the ShaanXi 陕西 province.” It was getting dark and they didn’t have much to talk about, so they both went to bed.

Ning Caichen found it was hard to fall asleep in the new place. He heard someone was talking from the north of the room. He got off the bed and hid under the window. He saw a small yard outside the wall where a lady in her 40s and an old lady in dark red with a silver comb in her hair were talking. The mid-aged lady asked, “why is Xiaoqian 小倩 still not here?” The old lady replied, “almost here!” The mid-aged lady asked, “does she have some problems with you grandma?” “I haven’t heard about it.” The old woman replied.

The mid-aged lady said, “that young lady isn’t easy to get along with!” While they were talking, here came a young lady around 17~18 years old. It seemed like she was beautiful. I like the writer’s word here. Like mentioned at the beginning, Ning Caichen was a principled man who would keep a distance with female. The text says he saw a girl however he didn’t look closely due to principles and manners so she seemed like a beautiful girl. The old lady smiled and said, “you little demon. You came so quietly that thank god we didn’t say anything bad about you. You are so beautiful as walking from a painting. If I am a man, I would be bewitched by you.” The girl replied, “grandma if you don’t accomplish me who would praise me?” They kept talking something. Ning Caichen though they were the neighbors living next to the temple and went to bed. After a while, the yard was finally quiet. When he was about to fall asleep, he felt someone walking into the room. He immediately sit up, it was the young girl he just saw.


We will continue the story in our next episode.




Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio



Episode 150: Tiger’s Ghosts

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Today we will talk about a kind of ghost in Chinese mythology who works for the tigers. The name of the ghost is 伥Chang.

In the book Taiping Guangji 太平广记, a collection of stories complied in the early Song dynasty 宋朝 around the 10th century, it says Chang are the ghosts that were eaten by tigers and they work for the tigers. It kind of similar to zombies or vampires that when you are killed by them, you become them. The difference is that Chang are not tigers but help the tigers to hurt more people.


In the book KuiCheZhi 睽车 志from the Song dynasty 宋朝, around the 12th century, it says, before the tiger arrived, the ghosts Chang would arrive first and broke hunter’s traps. The solution is to put plums on the ground since the ghosts Chang like to eat sour food and forget their missions. In this way, the tiger can be caught.

There are many stories about the ghosts Chang in Chinese mythology and when I was a kid I always felt creeped out of them. We will tell a couple of these stories.

The first story is from the book YiWenZongLu 异闻总录. It says, during the reign of Temur Khan in the Yuan dynasty 元朝, around the 13th century, there was a doctor from the province Jiangxi called Lin Xingke 林行可. Since he was a very skillful doctor, people always invited him to their him for appointments. One night, an old lady asked him to come with her for an appointment, Dr. Lin followed the old lady for miles and came to a forest. The old lady said, “please wait here for a moment. I will go and tell the patient to meet with you.” Dr. Lin was confused and thought, “who would live in the forests?” Under the dim moonlight, he barely could see the old lady but he saw her walking into a tomb in the woods and disappeared. Dr. Lin was more confused and started to worry. Coincidentally there was a temple not far away, he ran into the temple and closed the gate. Meanwhile, he saw the old lady came out with a tiger. They walked around and looked for him. The old lady sighed and said, “what a pity. I have been planning this for three years but you ran away.” Dr.Lin was too scared too breathe and waited in the temple until the sunrise. After that, he refused any appointments in other people’s houses.


The second story is the nightmare of my childhood and it is from the book JianChanBiJi 廛笔记 from the Qing dynasty 清朝 around the 19th century. It says, there was an old man. His wife, first son and daughter in law were eaten by tigers one by one. One night, his second son had a dream that his past mother told him there was gold under a tree on the mountain. He should go to dig the gold out and wouldn’t worry about money for the rest of his life. Later they found out his mother became a ghost Chang after being killed by the tiger and she was helping the tiger to trick the son to go to the place so the tiger could eat him although it was her son. Luckily, the son survived and the tiger was caught by the father. The mother regretted afterwards and went to the hell to work for the King of hell.




太平广记 Taiping Guangji

睽车志 KuiCheZhi

异闻总录 YiWenZongLu

趼廛笔记 JianChanBiJi

Episode 149: The Five Gentlemen With One Eye

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Today we will talk about a kind of ghost in Chinese mythology called The Five Gentlemen with One Eye 一目五先生 from the book What The Master Would Not Discuss 子不语, a collection of supernatural stories compiled by Yuan Mei 袁枚 during the Qing dynasty 清朝 published in 1788.


We actually mentioned this book a few times but in Chinese name. The title of the book is appealing in which the master refers to Confucius. Because in the book Analects 论语, it says “Confucius did not speak of strange events, violence, riots and supernatural things.”, yet this book is about the supernaturals.

In the book, it says, there were a group of five ghosts in Zhejiang Province 浙江, of whom four were blind and only one had one eye. All relying on this one eye, the ghosts were able to see, so they were called “The Five gentlemen with One Eye.” A pandemic struck one year in the region and the five ghosts decided to take advantage of this. They always waited until people were in deep sleep and draw their noses close to sniff them. Maybe it is like sucking people’s souls. If one ghost sniffed the person, he or she would be ill. And if all five ghosts sniffed a person, he or she would die. Since four of the ghosts were totally blind, they were always aimlessly wandered around. They staggered about and all they did was to wait for the one-eyed ghost to give orders and they would comply.

There was a Mr. Qian 钱 once stayed in an inn. At night, everyone fell asleep except him. Suddenly, the candlelight went dim and he saw the five ghosts jumped into the room. The four blind ghosts were about to sniff one guest, the ghost with one eye said, “that is a very kind man. We can’t hurt him.” The four blind ghosts were about to sniff another person, but the one-eyed ghost said, “that is a very lucky man. We can’t hurt him.” Then the four blind ghosts asked, “sir please tell us who can we eat? ” The one-eyed ghost pointed two people and said, “they are neither kind nor evil, lucky or unlucky. Why not eat them? ” The five ghosts went ahead and sniffed them. In a moment, the breathe of the two people grew weaker while the belly of the five ghosts grew bigger.


Some people say this story is a sarcasm of the Doctrine of the Mean 中庸, which is a doctrine of Confucianism. Zhong means towards to neither one way or another and yong means unchanging. Part of Zhongyong is about maintaining balance and harmony and otherwise it for sure affects people’s behaviors and ways of thinking like people should obey order and follow the principles. The negative side is just like the story shows most people don’t have their own judgement like having no eyes wondering in the world and accept and follow what other people tell them to do.



子不语 What The Master Would Not Discuss

Episode 96: YingNing The Laughing Girl – part 3

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Today we will continue our story about YingNing , the laughing girl from the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊斋 志异.

Last time we talked about Wang ZiFu found the girl he fell in love with and was invited into the house to stay for a while

The next day Wang ZiFu went to the garden behind the house with a well-kept lawn and plenty of trees and flowers. There was an arbor consisting of three posts. Walking through the flowers, he heard some noise from the trees and looking up saw YingNing on it who at once burst out laughing and nearly fell off. “Don’t! Don’t! Be careful!” cried Wang ZiFu. YingNing tried to get down from the tree giggling all the time until when she was near the ground, she missed her hold and tumbled down with a run. This finally stopped her laugh. Wang ZiFu helped her to stand up and gently squeezed her hand. YingNing began to laugh again leaning against a tree.

Wang ZiFu waited until she finished laughing and then took the flower out of his sleeve. “It is dead. Why are you still keeping it?” asked YingNing. “You dropped it on the Lantern Festival so I keep it. ” “What is the point of keeping it?” asked YingNing. “To show my love that I will never forget. Since the first time we met, I have a love sickness and thought I would die. It is my luck to meet you again, I pray you have pity on me.” “It is a piece of cake.I am your cousin. If you need flowers, I will tell the servants get a whole basket full of flowers when you leave.” YingNing replied. “Did you not understand what I said?” Wang ZiFu asked. “I don’t care about flowers but the person who picked the flower.” “Of course” answered she, “everybody cares about their relatives.” Wang ZiFu said, “I wasn’t talking about the ordinary relations but the love between husband and wife.” “What’s the difference?” asked YingNing. “Husband and wife sleep together at night.” YingNing lowered her head and thought for a while said, “I am used to sleep with strangers.” Wang ZiFu saw a maid walking towards to them and slipped away.

Later, they all met in the old woman’s room. The old woman asked, “where did you go?” YingNing replied, “we were talking in the garden. ” The old woman said, “the dinner has been ready for a while. I can’t think what you had to say all this while.” YingNing said, “my cousin said he wanted to sleep with me.” Wang ZiFu was so ashamed and made her a sign to her to be quite so she smiled and said no more. It is lucky that the old woman was a little deaf and didn’t catch the words. Wang ZiFu whispered to YingNing , “our conversation is private and is not supposed to tell others.” YingNing said, “I never hold any secrets from my mother, besides, what harm can there be talking about sleeping together?” Wang ZiFu sighed and thought YingNing was such a naive and innocent girl. He didn’t know what to do the let her understand.

After dinner, the servants from Wang ZiFu’s family came to find him. Because his mother couldn’t find him after he left in the village and they remember this location Mr.Wu mentioned. Wang ZiFu told the old woman and begged her to let him bring YingNing to go back with him. “I have had the idea in my head for a long time. But I am too old to travel. If you will take care of my girl and introduce to her to her aunt, it would be wonderful. ”




So she called YingNing who came up laughing as usual. Whereupon the old woman commented, “what makes you always laugh? You would be a perfect girl if you stop being that silly. You cousin wants to talk you to visit the families. Go ahead and get ready.” The old woman provided refreshment for the servants from Wang ZiFu’s family and told YingNing that her aunt was quite well enough off to maintain her, she had better stay there for a while and study the basic principles and books. So she could marry to a good husband in the future with the help of her aunt.

So off they left, when they reached the brow of the hill, they looked back and could still see the old woman leaning against the door gazing towards the north. When they arrived home, his mother was surprised to see such a good-looking girl and asked him who she was. Wang ZiFu told her YingNing was his cousin, the daughter of his aunt’s. “It was all made up by Mr. Wu. He was lying to you about the location and your cousin. ” cried his mother, “I had a sister married to the Qin’s family but she died many years ago. She can’t be still alive ” she asked about the details about what the old woman looked like and was obliged to acknowledged the identity.




When she was wondering how she could be still living, Mr. Wu came to visit. YingNing retired within. Mr. Wu was lost in astonishment as well after hearing the whole story. He thought for a while and asked, “is the young lady’s name YingNing?” Wang ZiFu confirmed him and asked how he knew. “Mr. Qin was bewitched by a fox spirit after his wife’s death and subsequently died. The fox had a daughter named YingNing. Even after Mr. Qin’s death, the fox spirit frequently came back to visit. The families invited the Taoist priest to exorcise it. The fox then left with her daughter YingNing. Now here she is.” While they were talking, peals of laughter were heard from within. Wang ZiFu’s mother remarked what a silly and innocent girl she was. Mr. Wu asked to be introduced and YingNing came out with a bow. Then she ran back into the room and burst out laughing again. Everyone was amused by her laugh.

Mr. Wu suggested he would go to visit YingNing’s family and find out more about the story and plus he could arrange the marriage. Like some stories we talked about before, this time he came to the same location, there weren’t any houses just some flowers scattered on the hills. He remembered Mr. Qin had buried not too far, but he couldn’t find the grave either.

Wang ZiFu’s mother told YingNing what Mr. Wu found at her home, YingNing showed no signs of fear or alarm. Neither did she cry about she was alone now even when Wang ZiFu’s mother condole with her on no long having a home. She still laughed in a silly way.

If you want to find out what happens next, check out our next episode.



聊斋 志异 Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio

Episode 76 : Ghost Festival

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It is almost the time of the Ghost Festival and today we will talk about this special day in China. We talked about the Day of Death in our podcast before and it is a little similar to but not quite the same to Ghost Festival. If you want to know more about the Day of Death, please check our episode 38.

The main difference between Day of Death and Ghost Festival for me is that I feel like most ceremonies are held during the day on the Day of Death however most ceremonies held during the night on the Ghost Festival. So when I think of Day of Death, I would think about picnic on a refreshing spring day visiting the cemetery. However when I think of the Ghost Festival, I think about some scary ghosts wondering on the streets during night time.


Ghost Festival 鬼节, is also called ZhongYuan Festival 中元节in Taoism and YuLanPenHui 盂兰 盆会in Buddhism, which is on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. This year it will be on August 25th.

There are different origins about the festival due to the influences of folklore, Taoism and Buddhism. In the folklore, there are two reasons to have a festival on the 15th of the seven month in the lunar calendar. First, it is the end of the summer and the start of the harvest season when it is the time to sacrifice and worship the land. Second, the 15th of month is usually the full month and the moon is a sacred sign in the ancient time.



In Taoism, the festival is called ZhongYuan Festival. Zhong means middle. Yuan means basic or the top. There are three officials in Taoism called SanGuanDaDi 三官大帝 which are TianGuan 天官, the official of heaven, DiGuan 地官, the official of the ground, ShuiGuan 水官, the official of the water. DiGuan is in the middle who is in charge of pardoning sins. The origin of ZhongYuan Festival is said on the birthday of DiGuan, the official of the ground. On this day, the ghost gate in the underworld is open. We talked about the underworld and ghost gate in our episode 12 you can check it if you are interested. The ghosts and spirits have this day to come out to our world and it is kind of like in the movie Coco. If the spirits have families alive, they can visit them.


In Buddhism, the festival is called YuLanPenHui which is from the Sanskrit word Ullambana from the Ullambana Sutra. Ullambana means being hung upside down in sanskirt meaning the pains in life is like we are hung upside down on the tree. In the sutra, it says Mulian asked the Buddha to relieve the suffering of his past mom as a hungry ghost. His mom had been greedy with money and after death, she was at the realm of the Hungry Ghosts that they could not eat. The Buddha informed him that food offered to the community of monks at the time of their return from the summer retreat will benefit 7 generations of his ancestors. Mulian raised his mom to reincarnate to human by giving food and robes to 500 monks.

Since the Buddhism story is about filial piety which is an important part in Chinese culture including Taoism and Confucianism, the rituals of the festival includes descendants burning incenses, preparing food offerings, burning joss paper for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Different from the Day of the Death, instead of going to the cemeteries, people would burn joss paper just on the streets because the spirits are visiting us. The ceremonies are usually held in the afternoon or at night when the ghosts are released.


Think about how scary it is for a kid thinking about spirits and ghosts are wondering on the streets. I remember after school on the Ghost Festival, I could see a lot of people just burning joss paper on the streets maybe talking to the spirit and the name of their ancestors so they can find families and receive the money. Grow ups would warn us that do not wonder around on the streets that day after school since we would be likely encounter ghosts. Shops closed early that they want to empty the streets for the ghosts. There are some taboos like don’t look back that day if somebody call you or pat on your shoulders. Pat your shoulders, exhale and rub your shoes before you enter home just in case you are haunted by some bad spirits on your body.

Another traditions on the Ghost Festival is float water lanterns usually in the shape of lotus flower on water to direct the spirits and ancestors back to the underworld.



鬼节 Ghost Festival

中元节 ZhongYuan Festival

盂兰 盆会 YuLanPenHui

Ullambana Sutra