Some last-minute tales of the altogether ooky
During the Taiyuan reign period of the Jin (376-396), there was a man who married his daughter into a nearby village. The groom’s family sent people to receive her when the time came, and the bride’s birth family gave her a good send-off and had her nursemaid escort her to her new home. When she arrived she saw serried ranks of gates and receiving chambers, like a prince or a marquis might have. Lamps burned at the base of every column in the corridors, with impeccably coiffed maidservants to tend them. The concubines’ quarters had the loveliest bed-curtains.
That night the girl clung to her nursemaid and sobbed. Putting her hand into the bed-curtains to comfort the girl, the nursemaid discovered a serpent, thick as several men’s arms, wrapped around the girl from head to foot. She ran from the room in terror. The maidservants in the corridors were all little snakes and the flames in the lamps were the snakes’ eyes.
(Records of Further Investigations in the Spirit Realm 搜神後記, 10.7)
The tagline for this newsletter is “Unbelievably late-breaking news from China,” and it brings me no pleasure to inform you that the Han dynasty fell in 220 CE. A couple more news items from the following centuries that you may have missed:
In Changsha Commandery there was a man whose name has been forgotten but whose family lived beside the Yangtze. He had a daughter who was washing laundry on a sandbar when she felt something strange in her body. It proved to be not illness but pregnancy: she gave birth to three creatures that looked like gigantic catfish, and she loved them dearly, for they were her own.
She raised them in a washtub, and when they outgrew this after three months it became clear that they were baby flood-dragons. The eldest was named “Flood;” the second was “Surge;” and the littlest was “Overflow.”
All three flood-dragons left during one particularly fierce storm. From then on, they returned every time it was about to rain, and the woman, who knew to expect them, would go out to watch for them. The dragons would raise their heads from the river to gaze at their mother, and always lingered before departing. Many years later, when she died, the three flood-dragons went to her grave and sobbed over it for a full day. It sounded just like dogs howling.
(Records of Further Investigations in the Spirit Realm, 10.1)
Also in local flood-dragon news:
A Mr. Yin of Pingdu County in Ancheng lived in Huang Village, a little over three miles from the commandery, where he rented a cottage and a plot of farmland. In the sixth month of the 23rd year of the Yuanjia reign period (446), Yin’s son, who was twelve at the time, was watching the house when he saw a man of about 20 approaching from the east. The man rode a white horse and carried a parasol, and he and his four attendants were dressed all in yellow. Upon reaching the gate, he called out to the boy: “We’re just here to rest a while.”
The man walked into the main room of the cottage and seated himself on the couch, trailed by an attendant carrying his parasol. There were no seams to the men’s clothes, Yin’s son saw, and the horse was dappled in all five colors and had what appeared to be fish scales in place of hair. A drizzly fog descended, and the man mounted his horse, then looked back at Yin’s son. “I’ll be back again tomorrow,” he said, and as Yin’s son watched he rode westward and up into thin air. Clouds gathered, and suddenly the day was dark.
There was a great flood the following day. The mountain ravines seethed and churned, and the floodwaters spread even to the most secluded valleys. Just as the deluge was about to engulf Yin’s house, a great flood-dragon appeared, extending more than thirty feet in length, and wrapped itself around the cottage to protect it.
(Records of Further Investigations in the Spirit Realm, 10.2)
Early medieval zhiguai - literally, “anomaly accounts,” though given the season it’s tempting just to call them “tales of the altogether ooky” - are mostly not scary, per se. Sometimes they’re descriptions of improbable wildlife (in the Southwest lives the Lying Beast, whose other name is Bombast); sometimes, as in the famous story about Song Dingbo selling a ghost, they’re funny; mostly they’re just accounts of inexplicable occurrences, unconfirmed field reports, possible omens awaiting an explanation of what they were omens of. This, for my money, is what makes them work: the best zhiguai, or at least my favorites, suggest that humans don’t have all that much to do with whatever the real story is.