Wu Chang, or Life-is-Transient
By Lu Xun
If the gods who parade at temple fairs have power of life and death -- no, this is wrongly put, for all gods in China seem able to kill men at will -- if their task rather, like that of the guardian god of a city or the Emperor of the East Mountain, is to control human fate, in their retinue you will find some unusual figures: ghostly attendants, the ghostly king, and Wu Chang, or Life-is-Transient.
These spirits are usually impersonated by farm labourers or clumsy villagers. The ghostly attendants and their king wear red and green and go barefoot, while on their blue faces are painted fish scales -- perhaps the scales of dragons or some other creatures -- I am not quite clear on this point. The ghostly attendants carry steel prongs with rings attached which clang when shaken; and the ghostly king carries a small tiger-head tally. According to tradition, the king should walk with one foot; but since he is simply a clumsy villager after all, even though he has painted his face with the scales of a fish or some other creature, he still has to walk with two feet. Hence spectators are not much impressed by these ghosts and pay scant attention to them, with the exception of some devout old women and their grandchildren, who treat all spirits with proper reverence in order that none of them may feel left out.
As for the rest of us -- I believe I am speaking for others as well as myself -- what we most enjoy watching is Wu Chang. Not only is he lively and full of fun; the mere fact of his being completely in white among that gaudy throng makes him stand out like a stork in a flock of fowls. A glimpse of his tall white paper hat and his tattered palm-leaf fan in the distance makes everyone feel pleasantly excited.
Of all spirits he is the nearest and dearest to men, and we often come across him. In the temple of the guardian god of a city or the Emperor of the East Mountain, for example, behind the main hall is a dark room called the Court of Hell; and barely perceptible through the gloom are the images of ghosts: the one who died by hanging, the one who fell to his death, the one who was killed by a tiger, the one who expired in the examination cell ... but the long white figure you see as you enter is Wu Chang. Though I once paid a visit to the Court of Hell, I was much too timid then to take a good look. I have heard that he carries an iron chain in one hand, because he is the summoner of dead men's spirits. Tradition has it that the Court of Hell in the temple of the Emperor of the East Mountain in Fanchiang was strangely constructed with a movable plank just inside the threshold. When you entered and stepped on one end of this plank, Wu Chang would fly over from the other end and throw his iron chain neatly round your neck; but after a man had been frightened to death in this way they nailed the plank down. Even in my young days it no longer moved.
If you want to take a good look at him, you will find his picture in The Jade Calendar.* It may not be in the abridged version, but in the complete version you are sure to find it. He is wearing deep mourning and straw sandals, with a straw belt round his waist and a string of paper money round his neck. He holds the tattered palm-leaf fan, a chain and an abacus; his shoulders are slightly hunched and his hair is disheveled; his eyebrows and eyes tilt down at the sides like an inverted V. He wears a peaked, rectangular hat, which, reckoned in proportion to the portrait as a whole, must be about two feet high. In front of the hat, where old and young gentlemen left over from the Ching Dynasty would fasten a pearl or jewel on their melon-shaped caps, are these words written vertically: Lucky to meet. According to another version, the words are: You are here too. This is the same phrase sometimes found on the horizontal tablet over the Court of the Venerable Pal.** Whether Wu Chang wrote these words on his hat himself or the King of Hell wrote them for him I have not yet been able to ascertain in the course of my researches.
* An old religious book, probably dating from the Sung Dynasty, describing the torments of hell as a warning to mortals.
** Pao Cheng was a magistrate of Kaifeng during the Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1127). Respected and loved for his justice, he became a popular character in Chinese folklore and was worshipped as one of the ten kings of hell.
The Jade Calendar has Life-if-Transient's opposite number, a ghost similarly equipped whose name is Death-is-Predestined. He also appears in temple fairs, where he is wrongly known as Death-is-Transient. Since his face and clothes are black, nobody cares to look at him. He too appears in the Court of Hell, where he stands facing the wall with a funereal air about him -- a genuine case of "knocking against the wall."* All who come in to worship and burn incense are supposed to rub his back, and this is said to rid you of bad luck. I rubbed his back too when I was small, but I never seem to have been free of bad luck. Perhaps if I had not rubbed it my luck would have been still worse. This again I have not yet been able to ascertain in the course of my researches.
* In previous articles Lu Hsun described himself as always "knocking against the wall" when he tried to do what he thought right.
I have made no study of the cannons of Hinayana Buddhism, but I hear that in Indian Buddhist lore you have the god Yama and the ox-headed devil, both of whom reign in hell. As for Mr. Life-is-Transient, who summons spirits, his origin cannot be traced to ancient times; yet the saying "life is transient" is a common one. I suppose once this concept reached China, we personified it. So Wu Chang is actually a Chinese invention.
But why is everyone pleasantly excited to see him?
When a great scholar or famous man appears anywhere, he has only to flourish his pen to make it a "model district."* At the end of the Han Dynasty Yu Fan praised my native place; but that after all was too long ago, for later it gave birth to the notorious "Shaohsing pettifoggers."** Of course, not all of us -- old and young, men and women -- are pettifoggers in Shaohsing. We have quite a few other "low types" too. And you cannot expect these low types to express themselves in such wonderful gibberish as this: "We are traversing a narrow and dangerous path, with a vast and boundless marshland on the left and a vast and boundless desert on the right, while our goal in front looms darkly through the mist."*** That would be expecting too much. Yet in some instinctive way they see their path very clearly to that darkly looming goal: betrothal, marriage, rearing children, and death. Of course, I am speaking here of my native district only. The case must be quite different in model districts. Many of them -- I mean the low types of my unworthy district -- have lived and suffered, been slandered and blackmailed so long that they know that in this world of men there is only one association which upholds justice,**** and even that looms darkly. Inevitably, then, they look forward to the nether regions. Most people consider themselves unjustly treated. In real life "upright gentlemen" can fool no one. And if you ask ignorant folk they will tell you without reflection: Fair judgements are given in hell!
* Professor Chen Yuan described his native place, Wuhsi, as the "model district" of China.
** Many of the pettifogging yamen clerks in the old days were natives of Shaohsing, hence the term "Shaohsing pettifogger." In an attack on Lu Hsun, professor Chen Yuan declared he had the temperament of a Shaohsing pettifogger.
*** Quoted from Professor Chen Yuan's open letter to the poet Hsu Chih-mo.
**** Referring to the so-called Association of Educational Circles for Upholding Justice set up by Chen Yuan and other professors.
Of course, when you think of its pleasures life seems worth living; but when you think of its sorrows Wu Chang may not be unwelcome. High or low, rich or poor alike, we must all appear empty-handed before the King of Hell, who will right all wrongs and punish evil-doers. Even low types sometimes stop to reflect: What sort of life have I led? Have I "leapt with rage"? Have I "stabbed other people in the back"?* In Wu Chang's hand is a large abacus, and no amount of superior airs will do a man any good. We demand undiluted justice for others, yet even in the infernal regions we hope to find some mercy for ourselves. But when all is said, this is hell. And the King of Hell, the ox-headed devil, and the horse-faced devil, invented by the Chinese, are all getting on with their job whole-heartedly and fairly, though they have published no significant articles in the papers. Before becoming ghosts, honest people who think of the future have to search for fragments of mercy in the sum total of justice; and to them Mr. Life-is-Transient appears the least of the evils confronting them.
* In a slanderous attack Chen Yuan said Lu Hsun always "leapt with rage" when criticized and "stabbed other people in the back" in his essays.
You cannot see Wu Chang's charm from the clay figure in the temple or the printed picture in the book. The best way is to see him in the opera. And ordinary opera will not do: it must be the Great Drama or Maudgalyayana Drama. Chang Tai has described in his Reminiscences of the Past what a fine spectacle the Maudgalyayana was, taking two to three days to stage one play. It was already not nearly so grand in my young days, but just like an ordinary Great Drama, starting in the evening and ending at dawn the next day. Such operas were performed to honour the gods and avert calamities, and each one had an evil-doer who met his end at dawn, when the cup of his sins was full and the King of Hell issued a warrant for his arrest. This was the point at which Wu Chang appeared on the stage.
I remember sitting in a boat below such a stage, with the audience in a different mood from usual. Generally, as the night wore on the crowd grew listless, but at this point they showed fresh interest. Wu Chang's tall paper hat which had been hanging in one corner of the stage was now taken inside, and the musicians took up a peculiar instrument and prepared to blow it lustily. This instrument looked very much like a trumpet, being long and slender, seven or eight feet in length; and it must have been a favourite with ghosts, for it was only played when there were ghosts on the stage. When you blew it, it blared: Nhatu, nhatu, nhatututuu! And we called it the Maudgalyayana trumpet.
As the crowd watched eagerly for the fall of the evil-doer, Wu Chang made his appearance. His dress was simpler than in the illustration, all he had neither chain nor abacus; he was simply an uncouth fellow all in white, with white face, red lips and knitted, jet black eyebrows so that it was hard to tell whether he was laughing or crying. Upon his entrance he had to sneeze a hundred and eight times and break wind a hundred and eight times before introducing himself. I am sorry I cannot remember all he said, but one passage went something like this:
The King of Hell issued a warrant,
And ordered me to arrest the scabby head next door.
When I asked who he was, I found that he was my cousin's son.
What was his illness? Typhoid and dysentery.
What was his medicine? Aconite, amarantus and cinnamon.
The first dose brought on a cold sweat;
The second made his legs turn stiff;
His mother was weeping so sadly
That I let him come to life for a little while;
But the king said I had been bribed;
He had me bound and given forty strokes!
The King of Hell does not cut too good a figure in this description, misjudging Wu Chang's character as he did. Still, the fact that he detected that Wu Chang's nephew had been allowed to come to life for a little while shows him not to be lacking in the attributes of a just and omniscient god. However, the punishment left our Wu Chang with an ineradicable impression of injustice. As he spoke of it he knitted his brows even more and, grasping his tattered palm-leaf fan and hanging his head, he started to dance like a duck swimming in the water.
Nhatu, nhatu, nhatu-nhatu-nhatututuu! The Maudgalyayana trumpet also wailed on in protest against this unendurable wrong.
So Wu Chang made up his mind:
Now I shall let no man off,
Not though he is surrounded by a wall of bronze or iron,
Not though he is a kinsman of the emperor himself!
He has no mercy now. But this hardness was forced upon him by the punishment he received from the King of Hell. Of all the ghosts, he is the only one with any human feeling. If we ever become ghosts, he will naturally be the only one with whom we can make friends.
I still remember distinctly how in my home town, with those other low types, I enjoyed watching this ghostly yet human, just yet merciful, frightening yet lovable Wu Chang. We enjoyed the distress or laughter on his face, the bravado and jokes that fell from his lips.
The Wu Chang in temple fairs was not quite the same as on the stage. He went through certain motions but did not speak, as he followed a sort of clown who carried a plate of food. Wu Chang wanted to eat, but the clown would not give him the food. There were two additional characters as well -- the wife and the child. All low types have this common failing: they like to do to others as they would be done by. Hence they will not let even a ghost be lonely, but pair them all off; and Wu Chang was no exception. His better half was a handsome though rather countrified woman who was known as Sister-in-law Wu Chang. Judging by this mode of address, Wu Chang must belong to our own generation. No wonder he did not give himself any professorial airs. Then there was a boy in a smaller tall hat and smaller white clothes. Though only a child, his shoulders were already slightly hunched up while his eyes and eyebrows slanted down. Obviously he was Wu Chang Junior, though everyone called him Ah-ling and showed him little respect -- perhaps because he was Sister-in-law Wu Chang's son by a former husband? In that case, though, how could he look so like Wu Chang? Well, it is hard to fathom the ways of ghosts and spirits, and we shall simply have to leave it at that. As for why Wu Chang had no children of his own, this is easy to explain now. Spirits can foresee the future. He must have feared that if he had many children gossips would try to use this as circumstantial evidence to prove that he had accepted Russian roubles. Hence he not only studies birth control but practices it as well.
The scene with the food is called "The Send Off." Because Wu Chang is the summoner of spirits, the relatives of anyone who dies have to give him a farewell feast. As for not allowing him to eat, this is just a bit of fun in the temple fairs and not the case in fact. But everyone likes to have a bit of fun with Wu Chang, because he is so frank, out-spoken and human. If you want a true friend, you will find few better than him.
Some say he is a man who goes to the spirit world, in other words a human being whose spirit serves in hell while he is asleep. That is why he looks so human. I remember a man who lived in a cottage not far from my home, who claimed he was such a Wu Chang, and incense and candles were burnt outside his door. I noticed, though, he had an unusually ghostly expression. Could it be that when he became a ghost in the nether regions his expression became more human? Well, it is hard to fathom the ways of ghosts and spirits, and we shall simply have to leave it at that.
June 23, 1926
Originally published in Chinese Literature magazine (No.3,1956)
Originally, the land adjacent to the city wall outside the West Gate had been public land. The zigzag path slanting across it, trodden out by passers-by seeking a short cut, had become a natural boundary line. Left of the path, executed criminals or those who had died of neglect in prison were buried. Right of the path were paupers' graves. The series of grave mounds on both sides looked like the rolls laid out for a rich man's birthday.
The Qingming Festival that year was unusually cold. Willows were only beginning to put forth shoots no larger than grains of rice. Shortly after daybreak, Old Shuan's wife brought four dishes and a bowl of rice to set before a new grave in the right section, and wailed before it. When she had burned paper money she sat on the ground in a stupor as if waiting for something; but for what, she herself did not know. A breeze sprang up and stirred her short hair, which was certainly whiter than in the previous year.
Another woman came down the path, grey-haired and in rags. She was carrying an old, round, red-lacquered basket, with a string of paper money hanging from it; and she walked haltingly. When she saw Old Shuan's wife sitting on the ground watching her, she hesitated, and a flush of shame spread over her pale face. However, she summoned up courage to cross over to a grave in the left section, where she set down her basket.
That grave was directly opposite Little Shuan's, separated only by the path. As she watched the other woman set out four dishes and a bowl of rice, then stand up to wail and burn paper money. Old Shuan's wife thought: "It must be her son in that grave too." The older woman took a few aimless steps and stared vacantly around, then suddenly she began to tremble and stagger backward in a daze.
Fearing sorrow might send her out of her mind, Old Shuan's wife got up and stepped across the path, to say quietly: "Don't grieve, let's go home."
The other nodded, but her eyes were still fixed, and she muttered: "Look! What's that?"
Looking where she pointed, Old Shuan's wife saw that the grave in front had not yet been overgrown with grass. Ugly patches of soil still showed. But when she looked carefully, she was surprised to see at the top of the mound a wreath of red and white flowers.
Both of them suffered from failing eyesight, yet they could see these red and white flowers clearly. There were not many, but they were placed in a circle; and although not very fresh, were neatly set out. Little Shuan's mother looked round and found her own son's grave, like most of the rest, dotted with only a few little, pale flowers shivering in the cold. Suddenly she had a sense of futility and stopped feeling curious about the wreath.
Meantime the old woman had gone up to the grave to look more closely. "They have no roots," she said to herself." They can't have grown here. Who could have been here? Children don't come here to play, and none of our relatives have ever been here. What could have happened?" She puzzled over it, until suddenly her tears began to fall, and she cried aloud:
"Yu, my son, they all wronged you, and you do not forget. Is your grief still so great that today you worked this wonder to let me know?"
She looked all around, but could see only a crow perched on a leafless bough. "I know," she continued. "They murdered you. But a day of reckoning will come, Heaven will see to it. Close your eyes in peace... If you are really here, and can hear me, make that crow fly on to your grave as a sign."
The breeze had long since dropped, and the dry grass stood stiff and straight as copper wires. A faint, tremulous sound vibrated in the air, then faded and died away. All around was deadly still. They stood in the dry grass, looking up at the crow; and the crow, on the rigid bough of the tree, its head drawn in, stood immobile as iron.
Time passed. More people, young and old, came to visit the graves.
Old Shuan's wife felt somehow as if a load had been lifted from her mind and, wanting to leave, she urged the other:
The old woman sighed, and listlessly picked up the rice and dishes. After a moment's hesitation she started slowly off, still muttering to herself:
"What could it mean?"
They had not gone thirty paces when they heard a loud caw behind them. Startled, they looked round and saw the crow stretch wings, brace itself to take off, then fly like an arrow towards the far horizon.
Originally published in Chinese Literature magazine (No. 1,1972)