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The Religious System of China. Volume V (1908)
Extrait. The World of Spectres a Copy of that of Men

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du texte de l'ouvrage de Johann Jacob Maria de Groot, The Religious System of China. its ancient forms, evolution, history and present aspect. Manners, customs and social institutions connected therewith. Volume V : The Soul and Ancestral Worship : Demonology. — Sorcery. Édition originale, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 464 pages + illustrations. Réimpression : Literature House, Ltd, Taipei, Taiwan, 1964. Une édition réalisée par Pierre Palpant, bénévole, Paris.


The World of Spectres a Copy of that of Men

The chapters which we have devoted to spectres and ghosts, and to the ways in which they work upon the fate of man, have brought out on many a page the fact that they lead an existence remarkably analogous to that of man. They appear and haunt in shapes almost, or quite, as material as his. They speak as man, cherish human affections and grudges, have human appetites and lusts, and indulge in sexual intercourse as well with men as among themselves. They fight like men, using weapons ; they combine into gangs and troops, even forming well equipped armies, and may be fought and warded off with human spears, swords and arrows. They use money, live on human food and drink, and dress as men do ; in short, man in China has modelled his spectres in almost every respect after his own likeness and image.

Is it surprising then that popular imagination ascribes to spectres also a social life hardly different from the human ? As early as the sixth century before our era, as the lines show which we have extracted from the Tso ch‘wen on page 411, the power and influence of a spectre were deemed, just as in China’s human society, to be proportional to the numbers and might of the clan to which it had belonged on this earth and of which it remained a member after death ; which also points to belief in the continuity of family-life and clan-life beyond the present. The homes of those clans were situated in special ‘regions of kwei spectres or ghosts’, the real sites of which were, of course, never determined. In the Yih king we read, that a line of a kwa called [][] signifies :

« Kao Tsung attacking the spectre-regions, and defeating them in three years,

and that the kwa named [][] has a line suggesting the idea of

« a movement to attack a spectre-region, producing beneficial effects on the Great Realm in three years.

These passages refer professedly to an old tradition according to which Kao Tsung or Wu Ting, a monarch believed to have reigned in the fourteenth century B. C., led his troops against some remote barbarian country. This tradition is preserved in the Annals of the Bamboo Book, in these words :

« In the 32nd year of his reign he attacked the spectre-regions and camped in King, and in the 34th year the royal armies conquered those countries.

It is worth observing in this connection, that to this day the Chinese show remarkable fondness for styling foreigners kwei. In the Shi king too mention is made of regions of kwei in an ode which makes king Wen, the founder of the Cheu dynasty, say of the dethroned last sovereign of the house of Shang :

« Indignation is rife in the Middle Kingdom, which extends even over the spectre-regions.

A spectre-realm inhabited by one-eyed beings with human faces, is mentioned in the Shan-hai king, which places it among the northern countries between the seas, its notices on which form the twelfth chapter, the North being indeed the region of the Yin or cold and darkness with which spectres are assimilated.

Ma Twan-lin devoted some lines to a realm of that name, which he described among the countries in the extreme north.

« It lies sixty days’ travelling from the kingdom of Kiao-ma. Its inhabitants roam about in the night, but hide themselves during the day. They dress in dirty pieces (?) of deerskin. Their eyes, noses and ears are like those of the people in the Middle Kingdom, but they have their mouths on the top of their heads. They eat from earthenware dishes. There is no rice in their country, and they live upon deerskin and horses of the country (or earth-horses ?). Thirty days travelling from the south of that realm takes one to that of the Tuh-küeh.

In those mysterious countries, never obliterated from people’s fancy and memory, spectres and ghosts carried on regular trading business, even having for the purpose special markets or bazaars. This idea may have easily arisen from the existence of markets among tribes of mountaineers whom Chinese fancy converted into spectres. The official Histories of the T‘ang dynasty inform us, that

« there are, at the Western Sea, markets where traders, without seeing each other, put down beside the merchandise the price which they offer ; those places are called spectre-markets.

And a work of later date says :

« On the sea-coasts spectre-markets are kept, where people congregate at midnight, to separate at cock-crow ; men often obtain thence curious articles.

It may be observed that rolling thunder in distant, dark clouds is to the present day often called a demon-market.

It is from that region that, under the cover of night, hosts of devils swarm out regularly through imaginary gates, dubbed spectre-gates. Thus we read,

« in the daytime those gates are not open, but at sunset human voices sound there, and a colour as of blue fire then beams forth from them.

Mention is made of a spectre-gate in the south, in a spot forming at one time the farthest confine of the empire in that direction :

« Thirty miles in a southerly direction from the district city of Poh-liu (in the south-eastern part or Kwangsi) two rocks stand opposite one another at a distance of thirty paces. The people call them the spectre-gate pass. The way of the general Ma Yuen of the Han dynasty, the Queller of the Waves, on his expedition against the Man of Lin-yih, lay through it ; he erected there a stone tablet (commemorative of this event), of which the (pedestal in the shape of a) stone tortoise still exists. In times gone by, travellers to Kiao-chi (Cochin-China) all used to pass through this gate. Southward from it malaria is so prevalent that those who depart hence seldom return alive. It is a common saying that nine men out of ten never return through the spectre‑gate pass.

It seems that this pass owed its lugubrious name merely to a play on words or to a mistake, it being not, in fact, called gate of the kwei or spectres, but gate of the kwei, or Cassia tree. And these old names have been superseded a long time ago by one of good omen.

« According to the Yü-t‘i ki shing, the pass of the kwei-tree gate was in the beginning incorrectly called that of the spectre-gate. In the first year of the Hung wu period of the Ming dynasty (1368) its name was changed into kwei-tree pass, which was replaced again in the Süen teh period (1426-1436) by that of pass of the gate of Heaven.

In the remote spectre-countries, according to an old tradition, the inhabitants were engendered by a mysterious being, called Kwei mu, the Mother of Spectres.

« In the South sea regions a mother of spectres lives in the Lesser Yü mountains. She gives birth to all the kwei that live in heaven and on earth. At every litter she brings forth ten, which, born in the morning, she devours in the evening. She is the shen who, under the name of Spectre-lady, exists in Ts‘ang-wu (i. e. the region about the spectre-gate pass). She has a tiger’s head, feet like a dragon, eyes of a python snake, and eyebrows of a kiao dragon. In Wu and Yueh (Kiangsu, Chehkiang and Fuhkien) her image of clay or wood is placed in the temples erected as a security against tempests ; it has a dragon’s head, a cow’s ears. and connected eye-brows, placed over one single eye.

This mother of spectres seems, however, to be an exotic invention, imported at an early date, and playing a part in China’s Buddhist religion. We shall therefore have to pay attention to her in some later volume.

Apart from those and some other legends, spectre-tales in general prove decisively that the demon-world in China has been thought at all times to exist in conjunction with that of men. It has its kwei wang or ‘spectre-kings’, and in Fuhkien it is a general custom among the people in accosting spectres, to cajolingly style them kúi ông, which is the local form of kwei wang. In particular, however, spectres and ghosts are, somewhat later than the beginning of our era, placed by popular imagination under the sway of a divinity residing in Shantung, in the T‘ai-shan or Great Mountain, also styled Tung-yoh or Eastern Mountain. He exercises justice especially over the ghosts of the dead, arraigning them for the purpose before his tribunal, and torturing and punishing them, his court being in consequence actually a hell. Or they may be haled before his coadjutors, the Ch‘ing-hwang shen or Gods of Walls and Moats. These divinities officiate in the walled towns of the empire, on a par with the mandarins who serve the Son of Heaven there. Each such town possesses a temple where the god is deemed to hold court and to wield the sceptre over the spirits within the same jurisdiction where the highest local officer residing in the town exercises terrestrial sway. The God of the Eastern Mountain likewise has a temple in most cities. These buildings are resorts for all who desire protection against evil spirits, and the gods residing therein accordingly are local patron-divinities with a paramount place in China’s religious life. We are not concerned with them as yet ; it is sufficient to state here that a number of spectres are thought to be devils in their service, sent out to arrest souls and hale them before their tribunals for examination, cruel torture, and bloody punishment.

The comparison of the Chinese world of spectres with that of men may be drawn out still farther. We know already that spectres possess armies which occasionally attack man, in order to destroy his welfare ; but apart from this, their society has its regular internal strifes, wars and battles. We read on this head, that

« seventy miles northward from Ping-cheu, an old grave was besieged every evening in the first year of the Ching kwan period (A. D. 627) by more than ten thousand spectral soldiers with banners and standards, fresh and clean. Then that grave poured forth instantly several thousand ghostly infantry and cavalry, joining with the besiegers in a hot battle beside the grave, and not until it was night did the two parties withdraw. This had gone on for about a month, when one evening there appeared yet another army from the north, upward of ten thousand spectres strong. They had just arrayed their ranks a few miles from the grave, when a farmer saw them, and took to his heels in consternation. A commander of the spectres ordered some ten of his men to catch him, and on his being brought before him, addressed him in these terms :

— Have no fear ; I am a shen of the Gobi desert, robbed by an subordinate commander of my favourite concubine, with whom he has eloped into this grave, and the lord Chang, whose burial place this is, employs soldiery to fight us.

Thus spirits also have consorts of their own kind ; which, in fact, the reader knows from many of our tales. It is in truth an established tenet, brought into prominence by our chapter on Sutteeism, that the ties uniting husbands and wives in this world are not broken by death. Now as marriage in China under whatever form purports the production of offspring, we cannot but infer that ghosts and spectres also procreate their race, and that their society is not recruited, solely from that of dying men.

And where sexual life exists, jealousy is rife ; hence, naturally, spectres in China are not exempt from this hateful passion. Outside the south gate of Kü-yung, thus runs a tale,

« there are the graves of nine husbands. Current tradition asserts, that once upon a time there lived a most handsome wife, whose husband died when she had by him not more than one baby boy. Her family estate was very large ; therefore she took to herself another husband, but this one too died after having begotten one son by her ; he was buried beside the first one. Now she took a third goodman, who died in the same circumstances, and in this way things went on, till she had had nine husbands, and possessed nine sons.. The nine graves lay in a circle, and when she died, she was buried in the midst. Then at every sunset there rose a cold wind on the spot, and in the night crying, whistling and quarrelling voices were heard, as if those husbands were jealously snatching the wife out of each other’s hands. In the end wayfarers no longer ventured by the spot, and the neighbouring villagers became so uneasy about the matter, that they lodged a complaint with the prefect Chao T‘ien-tsioh. This grandee went with them to the graves. He there held a judicial session, and ordered his underlings to deal thirty heavy blows with their long sticks on the top of each grave ; and since that time the deepest silence has reigned on the spot.

Apart from the graves which the living provide for the dead, spirits have burial places of their own making.

« In Ch‘en-cheu, a work of the T‘ang dynasty asserts, forty miles west of the principal city of the Sü-p‘u district (in Hunan), a mountain lies, where spectres bury their dead. Hwang Min’s description of Yuen-cheu says : ‘There, on the central cliff, coffins stand, which, seen from the distance, seem to be more than ten chang in size. It is called the graveyard of the spectres. Old people say, that when the spectres were making those coffins, for seven days and nights nothing was heard but the clicking of axes and chisels ; tools, knives and axes disappeared from the houses in a mysterious way, and were all restored to the owners on the seventh day when the spectres were ready, those tools then all having a greasy appearance and a smell of rancid flesh. The coffins stood by that time in the same position they have at present, athwart on the brink of the cliff.

Ideas about spectre regions being firmly fixed in the minds of the Chinese, tales about men who have visited them have, of course, been made in considerable numbers. As an instance the following one may be translated here :

« When the Chu family or Liang dynasty reigned, a trader of Ts‘ing-cheu (in Shantung) was out at sea, and blown by a gale to a place where he saw in the distance land with a walled city. The sea-captain said :

— Never has anybody been blown hither by the wind ; I have heard that the realm of spectres must be here ; could it be this ?

The ship soon reached the shore ; they landed, and went to the city. The houses and fields they passed did not differ from those in the Middle Kingdom. They saluted all whom they saw, but nobody saw them. At the city-gate there was a watch ; they bowed, but the watchmen did not return their courtesy. They entered the city, and found houses, men and animals in great numbers. Then they came to the palace, where a great feast was just being given by the king to the ministers, and several dozen boon-companions attended on him. Ceremonial clothes, caps, implements, and decorations in silk and bamboo were almost in every respect of the same kind as those used in China.

The foreigners went up the steps into the palace-hall, and as they crowded around the king’s seat, in order to look at him, he on a sudden became ill. His attendants carried him home, and hastily called a wu to examine him, who said :

— People from a yang country have came hither ; yang influences have thronged into this place ; this is it why the king has fallen ill ; those men have come here accidentally and cause this spectral evil unintentionally ; we therefore can ask them to go away, by means of food and drink, carts and horses.

Immediately they prepared spirits and eatables and set out seats in a side-room, and the ministers came with the wu to offer those things to them and pray to them, and the foreigners ate and drank at the tables. Suddenly slaves appeared with horses ; the foreigners mounted, and returned to the place whence they had come. At the seashore they went on board, and even to this last moment the people of that realm did not see them. As there blew again a fair wind, they could sail home.

Thus spectres treat men as men treat spectres ; men are dangerous to spectres as spectres are to men, by their natural contrary influence, and they are mutually exorcised by means of sacrifices. Another abode of spectres is sketched by the following tale, paraphrased and abridged by us :

In Sze-ch‘wen, in the district of Fung-tu on the Yang-tsze, men and spectres have intercourse. There is in that place a well, into which every year paper money is thrown in great quantities, and near which very much paper is burned as a tribute to the rulers of the nether world ; those who refuse to do so are punished with plagues and diseases. At the beginning of the present dynasty, Liu Kang entered upon his functions as prefect of the district, and heard of those practices. He forbade them, and people who blamed him for so doing he caused to be arrested, but they proved obstinate, and told him that there were spectres in the well, and that nobody yet had ventured himself to the bottom of it. This tempted the mandarin and another brave man, one Li Sien, to have themselves lowered into it with a rope to a depth of some fifty feet. First it was dark, but then they entered a spot as clear as daylight, where they saw a city with walls, palaces and houses, just as in the world of men, but where people walked in the air and had no shadows. Being a mandarin, he was received by everybody with great politeness, and conducted before one lord Pao, alias Yama, a man of about seventy, enthroned in a splendid palace, with a crown on his head. A seat having been politely offered to the mandarin, he requested that the people should be relieved of that annual tax of paper on account of their poverty ; on which Pao smilingly said that Taoist and Buddhist priests always deluded the people with ghost-tales, causing them to lay out large sums on sacrifices and masses, so that mandarins should take measures to restrain them and their doings.

Just then the Great Mara-subduing Emperor arrived, that is to say, Kwan-ti, the God of War ; out of the air he came, in a cloud of red light. He asked our mandarin about various things relating to the human world, and Li Sien was so bold to ask him where his residence was. The god did not answer, but immediately took his leave and departed, evidently in wrath. Lord Pao told Li Sien that this impudent question might cost him his life, and he probably would be smashed by thunder, but his body might escape destruction by fire if he died before that disaster came ; to this end he marked his back with a great seal. Then both men had themselves hauled up out of the well, and ere they had reached the south gate of the city, Li Sien caught cold and died. Soon after this a thunderstorm set fire to his coffin and burned it, as also his clothes, but his body remained undamaged because of the impression of the seal.

Besides such fanciful spectre-realms, the Chinese, especially owing to Buddhist influence, have infernal regions inhabited by myriads of spectres. It is not, however, these infernal beings who visit them with evil and disease, nor are these the powers against whom man is for ever waging the war for his protection. They rather are objects of his pious care, miserable victims of their own sins, to be charitably delivered from their abodes of distress by the help of religion. The methods invented and practised to this end, as also those places of woe, will be subjects for description in other parts of this work.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le dimanche 25 novembre 2007 8:58
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi.

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