Li Sao: A Ghost Story (a chapter of a work in progress, entitled Ge Meng)

It was not a secret that Professor Bai Hua favored our gang of four students over others in the class. On the night of the Lantern Festival, as arranged, Bai Hua waited for us near the bike racks. A dark gloom had overtaken the chilly winter air. “Shall we go to Fuzimiao? I want to show you a flavor of the local Nanjing culture,” he said.

In the southwestern part of the city, Bai Hua bought us each a paper lantern strung on a stick. I lit my lantern, and it glowed a brilliant red. Anya and Bai Hua each had pink ones. When she smiled gleefully, Bai Hua looked at her. My heart twinged, as if I’d developed a small crush.

Bai Hua led us past Confucius Temple, down Dongyuan Street, along the Qin Huai River. “I want to show you some of the rarest parts of Nanjing—the narrowest streets and walls surrounding the old district.” We turned again, losing our sense of direction until Bai Hua stopped abruptly. I bumped into Saul. “Many people don’t know this street, but some of the wealthiest families in Nanjing used to live here before Liberation. Look at this house’s elaborately carved doors: it’s become extremely rare, but sometimes you can still find a mark on the door, on the mantel, or more commonly on the bottom. Here.” He bent down and tapped below the door.  “Do you see something?”

Charlie peered down, his metal glasses flashing in his lantern’s light. “It’s a drawing …a phoenix?” 

Bai Hua shook his head. “A rare surname, written in archaic wényán literary Chinese. A name so rare I’ve never known how to pronounce it. Only the most distinguished families in troubled times put marks here to show their secret lineage. But during the Cultural Revolution, many of these doors were destroyed, the markings scratched out.”

I ran my finger along the base of the door, the image of a plumed bird etched into my skin. During the day, the house would seem insignificant. In the red cast of my lantern’s light, I sensed blackened stone walls. The stink of sewage.  

“Who lives here?” Charlie asked.

“It’s vacant now, a forgotten treasure…Once this house belonged to my wife.”  

Five lanterns shook in excitement, a little dance of bright goblins, then calmed as we waited in expectant silence, desperate to hear more about his personal life. 

“Unfortunately I cannot take you inside. After the revolution, the government took control of these houses. My wife’s relatives were allowed to stay in the outer rooms. Strangers took the inner rooms…”

“Are they still there?” Anya asked, approaching the door curiously.

Bai Hua put his arm out to block her. “The families are gone. Now it’s used for storage of old papers. University acrhives. I’m afraid I can’t even go in myself these days. I no longer possess a key. Inside, you’d see walls with fraying electrical circuits ripped out. There’s no running water. The rooms are unheated. The floor is broken in parts. Only a small portion of the front hallway belonged to my wife, and she filled it with so many boxes of books and papers that it’s impossible to open the door.”

We stared at him, quietly fascinated, never guessing he was married. Had she left him or was he widowed? And why did it now belong to the University? No one dared to ask, but a glint in Anya’s eyes suggested this would later warrant a lengthy discussion with Charlie and Saul. Far away, we heard the first scattered popping sounds of fireworks and drums.  “Come!” Bai Hua motioned to us, jolly now. “Let’s drink some wine in the market before it’s completely dark!”

Seated at wooden benches at the market near Dongyuan Street, our lanterns resting at our sides, Bai Hua laid out snacks on the large table carefully selected from the market stalls: boiled tea eggs, marinated tofu, sweet glutinous dumplings. A noodle soup made from congealed blood cakes and seasoned with caraway that he urged us to try but which Saul, a vegetarian, only politely touched. He left with Anya to buy drinks while Charlie drummed his fingers restlessly on the table.

“You know, in ancient times the Lantern Festival was much like a Ghost Festival,” Bai Hua reflected. “A night the spirits break through the gates of Hell and come back to this world for a second haunting. They eat the roasted meats and fruits left for them by the living and watch them burn paper houses and offerings for their ancestors. You’ve all seen the burnt paper ashes fluttering in the streets? The ghosts are mostly friendly, but if you find yourself walking in an alley and hear someone call your name tonight, don’t look back.”

Anya and Saul returned, each holding several large bottles of rice wine, which they opened and passed around. Bai Hua took a long, grateful sip.  “It’s just superstition, but it’s said that if someone calls your name on the street on a ghost night, don’t look back! Years ago, a classmate wandered down this alley during Ghost Month and disappeared...”

We sipped our drinks uneasily.

“But tonight is different. Tonight, there is a procession, and half the city will be walking off their potential ailments to stay healthy in the New Year.  Did you see the streams of lanterns moving like a snake’s tail weaving in and out of the temple gates? We call it ‘walking off the hundred illnesses’.”

“The other thing I like to do at Lantern Festival is tell ghost stories,” Bai Hua continued. “Does anyone have a story?” He looked around the table. Anya had pressed her body into Saul’s. Charlie looked at them with a tight expression. We were all silent.  “Alright, I’ll begin,” said Bai Hua. He brought his lantern closer to his face.

“In the time before Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who united the warring states, there was a kingdom—one of many small kingdoms—called Chu, south of the Yangtze River. The Chu people developed a sentimental form of poetry that spoke of love between men and women and the sadness of parting. The poems in southern dialect played greatly with sound. Clever and playful but love poetry couldn’t build a state system, so scholars ignored it. Chu poetry didn’t help them pass the examinations so they were omitted from the Confucian annals. Over time, many of these beautiful poems were lost.”

Bai Hua paused. “It’s important to say that Chu poetry is very beautiful. Not many people know about it. It contains a lot of different sounds and feelings.  The greatest of the poets was Chu Yuan. He invented the style of Sao, named after his most famous poem, Li Sao, a lamentation he wrote in exile after hearing of the king’s death.

“Do you mean a complaint?” Saul asked.

“Yes--an indignation born of anger or sadness, steeped in southern language and sensibility.”  Bai Hua thought for a moment. “His poems, you see, expressed a love of his homeland. He advised the king not to go to war. This gave him many enemies and the king exiled him. So he wrote sad laments. When the emperor died, the Qin Kingdom came south and defeated the Chu kingdom, and Chu Yuan in protest threw himself into the river.  According to legend, the people threw zong zi in the water so fish wouldn’t eat his body. They race dragon boats and recite poetry on May Fifth to remember him.” Bai Hua paused. “I have always wanted to write my own ghost story. An exile returned from the dead, a dissidence…Haunting.”  His voice trailed off.

Bai Hai’s face was flushed. He looked drunk. His voice, though still modulated, took on an extravagant inflected quality. “Which brings me to my last point: Chu Yuan’s devotion for his country was so admired that when he took his life, his flesh became symbolic. Ghosts reappear when the world is in imbalance. Beware of any ghosts wandering the streets tonight! They are dangerous and could be looking to exchange souls.”  

 “That’s not really a ghost story,” Charlie finally said, as if to challenge, but it came out as a whine. 

“It’s the Li Sao, Chu Yuan’s famous ‘lament’, dummy!” Anya snapped at him.

Saul opened a book. I hadn’t seen him take it out of his bag, but now he recited the Li Sao, not so much as a poem but as a song, whose words I can’t remember. The sound froze me cold. It was my first time hearing the language of Chu in poetry, a kind of wailing. He must have practiced. We were all tipsy, having finished the rice wine to keep warm.

 “Let a hundred blossoms bloom,” Charlie raised his glass and toasted, cutting him off. 

 “I thought you told us there’s no record of this kind of poetry left, for it was never chosen for the annals that the scholars studied for the Confucian exams?” Anya asked Bai Hua, who had stood up now. 

“The powerful subject matter of his poetry, and the poem’s metered verse invented a new form that moved away from the traditional four-character-per-line verse of the Spring and Autumn period. The new styles helped push forms of Chinese poetry in new directions. But remember, selection for the annals was much like the disputes over the western literary canon. Verse was selected or expunged to reflect the rise and fall of different power centers in the numerous ancient kingdoms. So very many of the forms were lost. Since the end of the warring states period, these small kingdoms were united together under the concept of a single state, a civilization giving the Emperor a great power to burn books and rewrite history.  Yet poets and writers have endured in memory not because they are revered by the king but by the people. We celebrate Chu Yuan in festivals, eat his symbolic flesh. He is like Jesus. We remember him as a troubled symbol.”

“But there is one tale very few people know about.” His voice grew hushed. “I heard this at Ghost Festival. After watching the Chu state lose territory in war after war and witnessing the hardships of the people, Chu Yuan returned from the dead in the form of a spirit to revisit his king.  It was ghost month, and his devotion had turned to anger that the king hadn’t heed his advice.  The king knew that even in death, he had the power to bring down the king. And so the king tricked him, showing him his book of verse while feeding him a glass of poisoned wine. Chu Yuan drank from the wine and died again, but not before leaving a dark, angry spot on the beautiful white parchment of the King’s collected works of anthologized poetry. A blemish that looked like blood. And each time officials recopied the anthologies on clean paper, the blood stain reappeared.”

 “Where can we find this ghost story? Is it written down?” we asked.

Bai Hua turned away. “No, the writer who dared tell this story is no longer in our world. It was too dangerous. The function of memory is surprisingly political--”

“Professor Bai Hua,” Anya interrupted. “Does your wife live in Nanjing?” Bai Hua took another swig of wine and didn’t answer. Saul twisted open the last bottle cap. “I thought because of the house…” Anya stopped, embarrassed.

“Did you love her?” Saul glared at Charlie, whose question clearly brought Bai Hua painful memories.

“Yes I did, very much. Until she fell sick. Shall we go?”

One by one, we tiptoed back through the maze of alleys, calling out to each other to keep together in the dark. More and more people darted through the alleys, carrying strings of lanterns that formed a snake’s tail as they pushed toward the temple’s door.

“Look out for each other, comrades. Find your friends! It’s easy to get lost…” Bai Hua’s voice trailed off.  Someone’s shoulder knocked me against a wall as a procession of lanterns passed by in laughter. I was floating in the dark, disconnected, and then I suddenly wanted to be alone. There was something beautiful and spooky about the procession. The lanterns lit up faces all glowing with the same belief, the faith in ritual protecting them from illness. I walked up the steps to the temple. Inside, people were bowing, lighting incense, lining up towards the back wall to see a bronze Buddha that was whispered to have been nearly destroyed from the decades when it had been hidden. Someone had stolen his hands and feet, his face was blackened with smoke. But his long horizontal eyes still closed, and hair in small coils like buds of tea, had been preserved. For a moment he looked frighteningly real. I leaned closer in. I thought I saw something behind it...a pair of eyes of a woman staring.

“Let’s look at the Aoshan Lantern,” a voice spoke over my shoulder. and I jumped. Saul. We went back into the alley, through a different route this time. The street was lit up with incanscendent lights, showing the walls’ uneven surfaces.  It was an artificial landscape of Aoshan, the mountain where the gods lived in the Eastern Sea, shaped by hundreds of separate lanterns with candles inside burning. I reached out as if to warm my hands.

“Bai Hua…Anya saw him walk this way with someone. It looked like they were forcing him to walk.” And now he’s disappeared!” Saul whispered, frightened. We walked through several alleys, and then we saw him. Burning paper in a fire. His face was turned away, but I could see his offerings: a paper house, a suitcase, a collection of figures. He dropped the stick and stamped out the ashes as his curses grew more urgent. He looked agitated and couldn’t see us, as he shouted at someone out of sight. “Where are you? Tell me what you want!” 

Behind me, I could hear Saul whispering. It was the final verse of Li Sao’s Lament he had never finished:

Now, the phoenix dispossessed,
In the shrine crows make their nest.
Withered is the jasmine rare,
Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Light is darkness, darkness day

Sad at heart I haste away…

I suddenly knew why Professor Bai had asked me to research Gao Meng. Why he had taken me under his wing, guiding me. I intensely disliked being manipulated, but I shook off my anger because another thought appeared at the same time. Bai Hua was in danger. That’s why the Gang of Four had been formed—urgently and in secrecy—to protect him from, for something dark and dangerous was about to engulf him. But what exactly, and why?