Wild Unicorn Herd

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Pu Songling, “Lotus Fragrance”

One of the loveliest stories collected in Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi (I’m using Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio, trans. John Minford, Penguin, 2006) is “Lotus Fragrance”, the tale of a love triangle between a fox-spirit, a human man, and a ghost. You could call it “Let the Right Ones In”. It’s rather long, but I will attempt to summarize it, because it’s a perfect story for a rainy night like this…

There was a young man by the name of Sang Xiao, from the town of Yizhou. He was orphaned when still a young man, and went to live in Saffron Bank, a small country town nearby. His was a quiet, self-contained nature. He only set foot outside his lodgings twice a day, and then only to eat with his neighbour to the east. The rest of the time he spent alone at home in his studio.

Once his neighbour dropped by and said in jest, “Living all on your own like this, are you never scared of ghosts and fox-spirits?”

Sang laughed. “Why should a grown man fear such things? Supposing something of that sort ever does come to visit me, why, if it’s male, I have a sharp sword at the ready; and if it’s female, I shall simply open my door and invite the young lady in!”

Sang’s neighbour pranks him by sending a local sing-song girl to knock on his door and identify herself as a ghost. This scares the shit out of Sang…until the next day, when his neighbour comes by to laugh at him. So the next night, when a gorgeous sing-song girl calling herself Lotus Fragrance knocks at his door, he invites her in confidently and they spend the night together. From then on, she comes back to visit him regularly.

One evening, Sang was sitting alone, lost in his thoughts, when he became vaguely aware of a woman’s form flitting into the room. Thinking it must be Lotus Fragrance on one of her periodic visits, he rose to greet her—only to see before him a total stranger, a young girl of fifteen or sixteen, with long flowing sleeves, and hair down to her shoulders. She was an exquisite vision, at one and the same time ethereally graceful and sensually alluring. When she moved, she seemed to drift through the air rather than walk. Sang at once had misgivings that she was a fox-spirit, and was greatly afraid.

“I am a daughter of the Li family,” she told him, as if divining his thoughts. “My family are well-respected people. Your fame as a man of great refinement and culture has reached my ears, and I have long wished to make your acquaintance.”

Sang felt strongly drawn to her and took hold of her hand, which was as cold as ice. “Why are you so cold?”

“I’m only a young girl,” she replied, “and extremely delicate by nature. It’s a frosty night outside. Of course I am cold!”

Because these are the Strange Tales, they promptly make love and Li pledges her devotion. Sang somewhat reluctantly tells her about Lotus Fragrance, and Li declares that she’ll avoid her: “Whenever she comes, I shall go; when she has gone, I shall return.” As the sun rises, she leaves, giving Sang one of her slippers, which he only has to hold in his hand to summon her.

Li becomes jealous of Lotus Fragrance—though Sang declares he finds them equally beautiful—and eventually spies on her. She tells Sang,

“Oh, she’s very beautiful all right. More beautiful than any woman on earth could ever be. That’s the point. She is definitely a fox-spirit. When she went away, I followed her to her hole in the southern hills.”

When Sang teasingly mentions this to Lotus Fragrance, she becomes angry and suspicious, and eventually Sang caves and tells her about Li. Lotus Fragrance decides to spy on Li in turn, and comes back to Sang with another revelation: Li is a ghost! Sang tells Li, who breaks down and cries and threatens to break up with him unless he dumps Lotus Fragrance. Lotus Fragrance, in turn, grows angry, warning Sang that sleeping with a ghost will drain his life-force and eventually kill him. She departs in a fury, vowing to stay away for a hundred days.

Sang and Li are “inseparable day and night”, but Sang gradually becomes tired and ill, and after a while can no longer even get out of bed. Li vanishes, leaving Sang helpless and alone. Lotus Fragrance finally comes back as she promised, but finds Sang on his deathbed. He begs her to destroy the slipper, but she summons Li with it instead and confronts her. Li confesses that she is indeed a ghost—she died as a young girl and was buried in the land Sang’s house was built on. However, she retorts: “Foxes also drive men to their death…What makes you different?” Lotus Fragrance: “You are speaking of the fox-spirits that feed themselves by sucking the life out of men. I am not that sort. You see, the truth is, there are harmless foxes, but never harmless ghosts.”

Hearing this exchange, Sang could deny the truth no longer: Lotus Fragrance was a fox-spirit and Li a ghost. His long acquaintance with the two of them enabled him to accept this extraordinary fact with a certain equanimity. But even as they were talking, he felt his life-force waning and gave a cry of pain.

Lotus Fragrance and Li put aside their differences and quickly work together to administer some emergency medicine and save Sang’s life. Over the next few months they nurse him back to health in secret and, in the process, come to genuinely like each other. But one day Li disappears again, much to Sang and Lotus Fragrance’s dismay. All they have left of hers is the slipper.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the town of Saffron Bank, a fifteen-year-old girl named Swallow Zhang falls ill and dies…and wakes up the very next day, calling herself a ghost, mentioning a young man called Sang, and wondering why her family is keeping her locked up. Sang has no way to see her, but he sends the slipper. It doesn’t fit, of course, because Swallow’s is a different body. And because this is the Strange Tales, Swallow falls ill again, her body goes through extraordinary transformations, and she wakes up looking just like Li once more.

Finally Sang gets an opportunity to drop by and they have a joyous reunion. The Zhangs are a little confused at first, but consent to Sang marrying Swallow. At the wedding, Lotus Fragrance and Swallow are reunited, and the commentators praise Lotus Fragrance for being a class act all round about the whole thing.

Here, perhaps, you’d have a “happily ever after”…but not yet. Lotus Fragrance and Sang have a son, but Lotus Fragrance becomes ill and dies soon after. When she dies, her body turns into a fox’s, but Sang buries her with all the ceremony befitting a human woman.

Swallow raises the boy as her own, but is unable to conceive herself, and urges Sang to take a concubine so they can have more kids. One day a poor widow comes by, selling her fourteen-year-old daughter…it was the seventeenth century, okay…and when Sang and Swallow see that the girl is the living image of Lotus Fragrance, they immediately take her in. Swallow calculates that it’s been fourteen years since Lotus Fragrance died, and greets the girl as a sister.

The girl wept. “It is all true! It must be! I remember my mother telling me that I was able to speak the day I was born. She thought it an ill omen and gave me dog’s blood to drink, to make me forget my past life. Now I have woken from what seems like a dream. And you were once Miss Li who felt ashamed to be a ghost?”

[…] One day, at the Qing Ming festival, Swallow said, “This is the day my husband and I always go to weep at your grave.”

The three of them went together to the grave, which was completely overgrown, with a large tree above it casting a broad shade. The girl heaved a deep sigh, and Swallow turned to Sang. “Sister Lotus and I have been close in two lifetimes. We never wish to be parted again. Take my bones and bury them with hers.”

[…] Sang did as she asked. He opened the Li family grave and took out the bones of the girl who had first become a wandering ghost and then Swallow, carried them home and buried them with those of Lotus Fragrance, who had died as a fox and been reborn as a soy-milk vendor’s daughter.

When they heard this extraordinary tale, many of Sang’s friends and relations dressed in respectful attire and came to pray at the grave of their own accord.

And everyone lived humanly ever after.