Real Life in China at the Height of the Empire: Revealed by the Ghosts of Ji Xiaolan.

Author:Inglis, Alister
Position::Book review
 
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Real Life in China at the Height of the Empire: Revealed by the Ghosts of Ji Xiaolan. Translated by DAVID E. POLLARD. Hong Kong: CHINESE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014. Pp. xl + 334. $45 (cloth).

For general readers and specialists alike, David Pollard's partial translation of Ji Xiaolan's anecdotal collection is a decidedly enthralling read. An eminent scholar-official active during the height of late imperial China, Ji Xiaolan--alternatively known as Ji Yun--is mostly remembered as editor-in-chief of the encyclopedic Compendium of the Four Types of Books (Siku quanshu), which preserved over three thousand literary works. Besides being an administrator and editor, he was an avid collector of art and antiquities. He also loved a good yarn. Over the course of his lifetime, Ji heard numerous stories and items of gossip told by friends, family members, servants, and colleagues. Around 1,200 of these he compiled into five volumes, collectively known as the Yuewei caotang biji. Given that yuewei signifies the perception of small matters pointing to great truths, Pollard refers to the collection as Perceptions. Ji's Perceptions are important for several reasons. They afford a fascinating window on everyday life during eighteenth-century China. The insights they offer into Ji Xiaolan's thought along with that of his social milieu help us to understand intellectual trends of the period. Furthermore, numerous ghost stories paint a rich canvas of religious ideas and practices while demonstrating the sophistication that China's millennia-old tradition of supernatural literature (zhiguai) attained.

It is to this vast corpus of supernatural literature that Pollard's title alludes: Real Life in China at the Height of the Empire Revealed by the Ghosts of Ji Xiaolan. As Pollard observes, Ji and the vast majority of his contemporaries were deeply religious, believed in ghosts, and worshipped a vast pantheon of Buddhist, Daoist, and popular deities. For much of the imperial period, the popular Buddhist and Daoist spirit-worlds were conceived as a hierarchy modelled on that of temporal society and its bureaucracy. Accordingly, otherworldly law courts apprehended miscreants and punished sins committed in life, human merit and demerit were meticulously recorded, while especially authorized deities arbitrated over human fortune. Ghosts were integral to this system. Didactic narratives in which ghosts exacted justice when temporal authorities failed both encouraged good deeds...

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