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Supernatural Tales of Ji Yun: Chinese Ghosts Stories

Spirits, Ghosts & Foxes in the stories of Ji Yun

Ji Yun (紀昀, 1724-1805), also known as Ji Xiaolan, a senior official of the Qing Dynasty and philosopher, politician, and writer, published five volumes of notes (biji, 笔记 random notes) and zhiguai (志怪 describing anomalies) on natural and supernatural themes between 1789 and 1798. 

Related articles: Chinese Black Magic; Demons, Monsters and Ghosts of the Chinese Folklore

Each of the novels quickly became quite successful. Sheng Shiyan, Ji Yun’s protégé, published all of the approximately 1200 stories under the title Yuewei caotang biji (閱微草堂筆記, Notes of the Thatched Abode of Close Observations) shortly after, in 1800.

Ji Yun rose to intellectual fame in 1747 after receiving the top honor in the provincial examinations. He received the jinshi degree many years later, in 1754, and then attended the Hanlin Academy. Ji Yun’s career, on the other hand, was not without challenges. In 1768, he became an accessory in a bribery case after informing a brother-in-law about the seriousness of the allegations against him, for which he was exiled to Dihua in Xinjiang Province.

Ji was greeted by the Qianlong Emperor on his return from Xinjiang in 1771, while the emperor was returning from Jehol to Beijing, and he was commanded to write a song about the return of the Turgut Mongols from the banks of the Volga. Ji’s presentation of the inspirational story of the exiled Mongols’ homecoming, subsequently immortalized in English by poet Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) in his epic Revolt of the Tartars, thrilled the emperor, who appointed him as an unofficial poet laureate. His questionable recompense was the task of compiling the Siku Quanshu.

Ji Yun was released from prison one year later, and on his return voyage in 1771, he produced a travel report condensed into 160 poems titled Xinjiang zalu (新疆杂录; Assorted verses about Xinjiang). This is still one of the most helpful Chinese sources on living in late-eighteenth-century Xinjiang Province.

Ji Yun was one of the three major writers of bizarre stories during the Qing Dynasty in China (the other two were Pu Songling and Yuan Mei). His stories comprised “actual” bizarre tales, paranormal investigations, horror stories, parables, reports of strange natural events, and sarcastic depictions of notable Neo-Confucian professors and government leaders.

The zhiguai are “naturally occurring, unanesthetized narratives” that belong to didactic literature and are intended to teach and convince the reader or listener. For the first time, the zhiguai were gathered and published systematically on a vast scale during the Six Dynasties (222-589). The zhiguai are related to historical texts due to their origin and claim of authenticity, although their substance reflects popular beliefs. Beginning with Yuan Mei’s (1716-1798) Zi bu yu in 1788 and continuing until the release of Ji Yun’s fifth volume in 1798, the 18th century saw the publishing of more zhiguai than ever before. The most well-known collection today is Pu Songling’s (1640-1715) Liaozhai zhiyi, which was published in 1766. 

The chronologies of Ji Yun are written in a traditional, plain and straightforward style. The Yuewei caotang biji stories cover a wide range of themes. They comprise common observations and characterizations of humanity, as well as accounts of gods, ghosts, the underworld, foxes, and demons, as well as the influence of heaven. Names of people, locations, and dates are frequently mentioned in this genre, thus many narrators, protagonists, and commenters may be recognized to this day. In addition to important contemporaries, the collection includes countless servants, farmers, businessmen, monks, and nuns. The majority of the stories take place during Ji Yun’s lifetime and in his home area in northeast China.

The irony was utilized by Ji Yun and the other aristocratic narrators to attack some features of 18th-century society. The collection investigated the many concepts of supernatural creatures and their human relationships.

According to Ji Yun’s worldview, “the supernatural” does not exist since everything, no matter how unusual, is normal and has a purpose. Ji Yun frequently attempts to explain and interpret issues in scientific, moral, or philosophical terms. In certain circumstances, he confesses that he lacks an answer since, as he puts it, human comprehension is limited.

Below we can read two of the short stories that appear in the Yuewei caotang biji translated by Nicholas J. Cogswell.


“Dai Dongyuan said that one of his great uncles once rented a vacant room along a remote alley. Some people said a spirit was there since no one had lived there for a long time. His great uncle proclaimed with a stern voice that he was not afraid. During the night a spirit, sure enough, revealed its form beneath a lantern, and a ghastly smell penetrated Dai’s flesh. 

The large spirit angrily said, “Do you truly not fear spirits?”  

His great uncle replied, “Truly.”  

The spirit then exhibited all kinds of terrifying forms and after a while asked again, “You still are not afraid?” 

His great uncle replied again, “I’m not.” 

The spirit’s complexion gradually relaxed a little, and it said, “I won’t insist upon driving you away. You just have to say the word ‘afraid,’ and I will immediately leave.” 

He furiously said, “I am not afraid of you, how could I possibly lie? Do whatever you want.” 

The spirit begged him over and over, but he consistently gave no reply. The spirit sighed and said, “I have lived here for over thirty years, and I have never once met someone as stubborn as you. How could I possibly live with such a silly creature!” Then the spirit vanished.  

Some people reproached his uncle, saying, “It is common sense for a man to fear spirits, and it is not at all shameful. Had you pretended and replied ‘afraid,’ you easily would have avoided trouble. You both then would not have made mutual concessions. What would you have done if the spirit had not desisted?” 

He said, “Those who have attained profound merit through practicing Daoism rely upon their own stable composition to banish evil spirits, but I am not that kind of person. I had to use my vigor to counter him. If I am forceful, then the spirit will not dare advance. To yield just a bit 

is to become discouraged, wherefore the spirit will quickly seize the opportunity and enter. The spirit wanted to lure me using every conceivable means, and fortunately I did not fall into its trap.” People discussed the matter, and everyone agreed that he was correct.”

Translation by Nicholas J. Cogswell, source: Strange and Supernatural Tales: A Translation of “Luanyang Xulu Wu” from Ji Yun’s Yuewei Caotang Biji


“Life’s greatest desires are to eat and drink and to love, but they all are immoral, disrespect proper human relationships, and ruin customs; all of this is firmly prohibited by national law. If mediocre people fall deeply in love with each other, then as long as they do not excessively violate the code of etiquette, there seemingly is no need to investigate using severe 

laws and statutes. When I was young, I heard that a certain gentleman who was an official in Langshu believed stern and upright integrity are one’s personal responsibility. He once betrothed one of his family’s underage servant girls to a young male servant. The two then would come and go together, no longer avoiding each other.  

  One day the two ran into each other in the middle of the courtyard. The gentleman also arrived there just at the same time and saw that the smiles on their faces had yet to disappear. Soon afterwards he grew angry and said, “These actions are improper! According to the law, he who violates his wife before marriage should be caned.” He then immediately ordered that the boy be caned. 

  Everyone said, “The little boy and girl were playing together and did not actually have an illicit affair. This can be proven by the slave girl’s expression and physical appearance.” 

The gentleman said, “If one has intent but does not commit the crime, only one crime is subtracted. The crime may be reduced, but it is not permissible to excuse the crime.” 

  He still hit the two, just about beating them to death. He had mistakenly thought that he He, Dong, and Liu families’ domestic discipline policies were also this way. From this time on the gentleman hated their bad etiquette, and he intentionally delayed their wedding date. 

The two were overcautious of their each and every move while working together, and during free time they would immediately hide after glimpsing the other’s shadow. They were in a dilemma and constantly anxious. Gradually their melancholy turned into illness, and they both 

died within less than half a year of each other. Their parents felt pity towards them and requested that they be buried together. The gentleman, still flush with anger, said, “It is improper to marry people who have died prematurely. Have you never heard of this before?” And he did not permit their request. Afterwards when he was nearing death, he muttered as if he were speaking with someone, but the sounds were unclear. He only distinctly repeated the two phrases “cannot act without my permission” and “it is not appropriate” over ten times. Everyone suspected that he had encountered something supernatural.  

  No one had been hired to act as matchmaker between the boy and girl, and they did not know each other’s full name. This is ancient etiquette. The gentleman had already decided to marry these two while they were very young and let them know that they would be husband and wife in the future. The two were together from morning to night, so it was impossible to tell them not to have feelings for each other. “Talk from inside the house cannot be spread outside, and talk from the outside cannot be spread inside” is ancient etiquette. The gentleman did not have many servants and was unable to make them separately handle their own affairs. 

They often came into contact with each other, and it was impossible to forbid them to converse with each other. His roots were not upright, and therefore his branches were also irregular. The improper behavior of these two was caused in fact by their master. The haste with which the affair was handled was inappropriate, so how could the departed possibly be content? When the spirit of those who died as result of injustice brought about disaster, he still rationalized with the phrase “it was not appropriate.” Would you still consider him a man of the Dao?

Translation by Nicholas J. Cogswell, source: Strange and Supernatural Tales: A Translation of “Luanyang Xulu Wu” from Ji Yun’s Yuewei Caotang Biji

Featured image: Daji from the Hokusai Manga

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