Chinese Folktales

39. The Necromancer

ONCE there was a man who, together with a few inquisitive friends, often held séances to raise spirits. One day a famous doctor from the Middle Ages appeared. But the words he uttered were crude and uneducated, and his poems did not rhyme properly. He always presented himself immediately when summoned.

Once, when they were in the middle of questions and answers, he rapped the signal: ‘I wish to leave.’ They asked him where he wanted to go. He replied: ‘The Tsien family have asked me to dinner.’ After that the desk remained silent. That family lived near by. The friends were curious and therefore walked across to the other house ta find out about the business. There they were told that because of some sickness in the family, sacrifices had been made.

The next day the ghost came again. They asked him: ‘Did you go to supper with those people?’

‘Yes,’ was the reply.

‘Was the food good?’

‘Oh yes, indeed.’

Then they taunted him: ‘But these people invited gods, not famous men. They wanted the city god or the god of the field. Why should a famous man like you go and dine with them?’

Thus cornered, the ghost replied: ‘l am not really the doctor at all; I am Li Pei-nien from Shantung.’

‘And who was Li Pei-nien?’ they asked.

‘l was a cotton merchant at the time of Kang Hsi and

died on my way to this village. My soul dwells in the little temple by the bridge. In addition to me, there are another twelve homeless souls there. Because we were not guilty of any particular misdeeds we can move freely. We get the benefit of all the offerings made in the village here. ‘

They asked: ‘But surely the offerings for the city god and the other gods are addressed a particular name. How can you nameless souls mix with those gods?’

The reply came: ‘The city god and the others do not enter people’s houses. The offerings which are made there are left untouched by them. That is where we benefit.’

They next asked: ‘But if the heavenly gods discover that you nameless ones have eaten up their offerings— Do they not punish you?’

‘What do the heavenly gods care about such prayers! These are merely the customs and habits of foolish men. Frequently demons possess the people in order to extort food offerings from them, and still nothing happens to them. Why then should the heavenly ones care if we benefit from a few food offerings which we did not extort but which were placed there voluntarily? After all, I did not extort the tea and wine from you which you have offered me, ‘

‘In that case,’ they went on questioning, ‘why did you assume the name of that famous doctor?’

‘Your domestic spirit was holding your incantation in his hand, looking for a spirit. But he dared not approach any real saints. So he invariably got one of us thirteen. But since I am the only one who can write a little I have been taking the liberty of answering your summonses. But if I had given you my true name of Li Pei-nien, would you have venerated me in the same way? And then I

found that a lot of families here had requested that doctor to write inscriptions for them, so I knew that he was a famous man and I decided to come under his name.’ ‘But if the likes of you are free to move,’ they continued to question him, ‘Why then do you not return to Shang- tung?’

‘There are spirits everywhere in the passes, at the fords and on the bridges. And unless one gives them money they do not let one pass.’

‘If I burnt a hundred notes of paper money for you to enable you to return home—would you like that?’

‘Yes indeed, thank you very much! But if you Want to do me a favour—l would need a further one hundred to pay off the bridge spirit where I have been lodging, or else I shall not be able to part on friendly terms.’

So the man burnt paper money so that the spirit could go Off on his journey. Since that day he has never summoned any spirits again.