Chinese unghost story

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This post’s title is a play on the title of a 1987 film made in Hong Kong “Chinese Ghost Story” directed by Ching Siu-tung. I’m not actually going to talk about that film, I’m just playing on its title. But it’s an absolutely beautiful film, part horror story, part action-adventure, part comedy; I highly recommend it.

I read the text under discussion in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 1963), edited and partly translated, with extensive discussions, by Wing-tsit Chan. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book handy, so can’t reference pages. An old translation of it can be found at the Internet Archive, in the collection of essays by Wang Ch’ung, the Lun Heng

Wang Ch’ung, the Chinese philosopher who lived, wrote, and taught about the same time that Jesus of Nazareth was teaching in the west, left behind him, as the spirit of his thought, a text titled (translated) “Treatise on Death.” One would think that this was some sort of treatise on death, but apparently it’s largely an argument against belief in the existence of ghosts. It must be said here that Wang was at the time attempting to develop a more naturalistic, rationalistic synthesis of Chinese precursors to scientific thought – yin/yang, Taoism, I Ching, Five elements metaphysics – it is evident that he wanted to remove the superstitious elements of these philosophies so that rational inquiry could begin to advance in a more orderly manner. Hence it was important for him to dispel myths about dying and coming back to haunt the material world.

But of course we need here to say the truth of dying: we humans all die, and while we understand the processes involved, we fear a certain sense of purposeless to it. Nor do we have any idea of what follows, not the slightest. (Those who claim to have ‘near-death’ experiences, during which they supposedly ‘see’ white lights, ‘feel’ warmth, ‘hear’ voices – well, the neural processes and their underlying electro-chemistry, in the brain’s responses to extreme stress of this sort are well known.) However, it’s understandable that many face the possibility of death with some trepidation, given that nothing is known of what follows it.

One response to this was undoubtedly the invention of ghosts. The return of the dead in an ethereal shape of their living selves, expresses our concern that the dead still maintain some investment in the living world they once inhabited, but it also promises living that something-follows-death, some other kind of ethereal life, even. However, ghosthood seems not to be the best possible afterlife, in the estimation of most, largely because it is somebody else’s afterlife, and this somebody else doesn’t appear to be very happy They come back from the netherworld because they miss someone they love, or they have unfinished business, or they seek revenge, etc. They had a bucket-list but never got around to completing those tasks, and , having kicked that bucket, they’re trying to get a second chance. But alas, the universe doesn’t work that way.

But fortunately for these poor ghosts, they’re completely fictional.

One of America’s most respected scholars of Chinese philosophy, Wing-Tsit Chan, has said of Wang’s arguments against the belief in ghosts that they are very simple, but they have never been refuted in two thousand years.

Here’s two:

First: Since literally millions of humans have died since humans have first begun to walk the earth (now billions), and assuming that ghosting, becoming a ghost, is simply an inevitable existence of the soul or spirit of the dead (even if we allow it to be some sort of punishment, there would now be millions so punished), then in those moments when it is possible to see any ghost at all, then we ought to be able to see all these ghosts (at least in our vicinity), in which case, there being so many of them, which should see nothing but ghosts surrounding us.

The argument may seem a little weak, but the counter-arguments are weaker, once critical pressure is put upon them. for instance, allow a ‘special’ ghost to use ghostly powers to present itself to a ‘special’ person. In that moment of specificity, there is but the one ghost visible. This would mean that a) the special ghost had power over all other ghosts, in order to prevent their becoming visible to the chosen special person, and/or b) there cannot possibly be any other ghosts anywhere at all that might simply wish to appear to the special person – say, just for the heck of it – at just the same moment the special ghost does.

Millions and millions of ghosts, and not a single one of them wishes to violate protocol! Such well-behaved ghosts! (Except of course, we all know they are not – if they were, we should never see them, only transgressive ghosts dare to appear before mortals. Believers in ghosts also believe in a great many rites and spiritual practices concerning the dead, so apparently there’s some law determining the border between the material and the spiritual realms, and some ghosts just seem determined to violate this law. But if one does, why not another – and another and another?)

Secondly: If ghosts could appear before us, in the vague figure of the bodies they inhabited while alive, why ever should they bother appearing before us fully dressed?

Ghost-aficionados usually treat such concern as trivial. Actually, as Wang demonstrates, it is nearly decisive. Either the ghosts are shy or modest (too much so, considering their condition, i.e., dead), or the humans reporting such appearances have all been too embarrassed to report the naked truth. There are a couple other possible responses, but they all reduce to the same problem: Clothing cannot die. Therefore, there can’t be any ghost clothing. The modest ghost can grab a towel if one’s lying around at the point of appearance, but it cannot just appear fully dressed, because ‘you can’t take it with you,’ especially your clothes. Thus the reporting of sightings of ghosts wearing clothes – and almost all reportings of ghosts have them wearing clothing of some kind – must signify a choice on the part of the ghost to grab the handy towel, or it signifies a choice by the human making the report, not to mention the nudity of the appearing ghosts – and aren’t we now getting a little silly? and aren’t we growing tired of making arcane excuses for what is simply illogical and impossible?

Either ghosts do not wear clothing, or there are no ghosts.

(Now as to the variety of ghost reportage that has them appear as mist, where possible clothing cannot be clearly discerned, Wang Ch’ung says in a treatise on exorcism that if they look like mist, they should act like mist – a strong wind should be able to blow them away. And if it doesn’t, then there’s nothing you can do to get rid of them, so exorcism would be pointless. Claims by exorcists that their rites work, thus only raises doubts concerning the veracity of exorcists’ claims.)

I will offer one further argument from Wang, related to the first, which, though trivial, is again nearly definitive, and a bit disturbing, for raises unsettling questions.

Now, while it is true that some living humans report ghosts of pet animals, and the like (who, at least, don’t need to be wearing any clothing), it is well to remember two things: First, ghosts of non-human animals should not be able to exercise either the choice or the power of human ghosts; and, second, humans are a specific kind of animal. So if coming back as a ghost is a capacity of our animal nature, then of course there should be ghosts of other animals. But unlike human ghosts, they would not need to show any respect for ghostly-appearance protocol, nor for the boundary between material and spiritual realms these protocols represent. Nor could they exercise ghostly power to banish all other ghosts from the vicinity of the human to whom they wish to appear; indeed, they likely would not even enjoy the capacity for such wishing: they would not decide to remain seen or unseen, they would simply pop into appearance whenever conditions were right. Thus, a person who saw the ghost of their once-pet dog would likely see a hundred thousand other canine ghosts in their vicinity.

And a human ghost would need the power to exclude all these dog ghosts, in order to appear to a chosen special person. And although we should like to grant denizens of the spirit-world all the power we living ourselves do not have, this is an awful lot of power for a simple haunting spirit; it makes the interventions of god and angels seem small beer by comparison.

Wang Ch’ung does not elaborate the point to this extent. He doesn’t need to. Once he makes the basic demand – if humans be allowed ghosts, then animals need be allowed ghosts as well – the above argument, and its fairly obvious continuance, become clear. If only humans have ghosts, then they either exert power over each other, and apparently with very little contention among them; or all animals have ghosts, in which case the human ghost is capable of exerting far more power than their lot would seem to deserve, or they don’t have any such power at all, in which case we should be seeing ghosts everywhere. (The metaphor Wang uses: Every pace of the road should have some ghost on it.)

But look at it another way. The material world is what we see precisely because it is material. The spiritual realm is effectively transparent to us, for there is nothing material to it. Thus where ever it is, we cannot point to it. If it is there, we look through it, it is the unseen, the unintelligible.

Ghosts, being modest, then all we should see about us is their clothing. Except of course, being ghost clothing, it would be transparent. Then all we should see about us should be ghostly bodies; but being ghost bodies, these too should be transparent.

Which means that we should only be able to see – well, exactly what we do see. Ghosts being transparent, we shouldn’t be able to see them at all.


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