The Shadow Book of Ji Yun is filled with accounts of the strange, supernatural, paranormal, spiritual, and philosophical, taken from both the author’s own firsthand experience and the words of those around him. Ji Yun was an Imperial Librarian of China in the eighteenth century, and his five volumes of weird tales were—at least ostensibly—an investigation into the realities of the supernatural events he experienced and others that were recounted to him. These short tales stitched together allow us to embark on a journey with Ji Yun through his life, travels, and encounters—so we can learn with the author about these unsettling stories, the significance of which even he must stop and ponder.
Ji Yun’s accounts are made up of a careful balance of reflection and hauntings, with each tale being similar yet different, always echoing one another: “To understand a part is to understand the whole. And to understand the beginning is to foretell the ending” (“The Shao Yong Method”). Of course, we cannot fully understand the entirety of Ji Yun’s life through these accounts, but they offer us rich insight into his person and journeys. With each story, Ji Yun builds up an eeriness that increases in intensity, easing into the strange before hitting you full force with the seemingly improbable.
Some stories seem more fleeting than others, but even the shorter pieces are written in such a succinct manner that they seem complete anyhow. The collection connects each story to the next in a rapid succession, but it is as though they are perfectly fitted fragments that make up a coherent whole, with authorial insertions that do not seem disruptive but reflective for the readers, as they thread forth with the author through this strange, unsettling, and at times, darkly humorous collection.
Readers must understand this is a collection of tales which, taken together, lead to the realization of just how weird, complex, and interconnected the world can be. Much of the world cannot be explained, more so now than ever; there is an ever-growing number of unanswered questions that remain just so across time. And, in this collection that resembles a selection of detective stories, we follow the author as he investigates and reflects on various accounts of the uncanny—all while the ghosts trail him as well.
The volume’s translators, Yu and Branscum, have included fascinating historical context. Their conscious and conscientious act of choosing which words the readers will consume—and in what order and structure—makes all the difference. The cadence, rhythm, and grammar of another language are often so difficult to capture in translation, but it has been achieved beautifully by Yu and Branscum, making the body of work sound original rather than translated. Truly, Yu’s and Branscum’s “guiding hands” revitalize the old and the past; but indeed, the old also revitalizes the new in the sense of inspiration and knowledge—and it helps us understand how much of our current world includes something sparked by tales previously told. We cannot doubt that Ji Yun’s values and perspective seep into each account even as we hold them true. What becomes apparent as we read these strange tales is the overlapping of the stories and the culture they come from, tinted by the philosophies—such as Buddhism and Taoism—land, and beliefs that informed both the period of writing and the author’s life itself. The culture surrounding the tales, Ji Yun’s background and biography, and the historical significance of it all are in effect also “ghosts” to the contemporary world. They haunt us still.
In The Shadow Book of Ji Yun, we catch glimpses of what Ji Yun considers the detriments that result from the allure of women (“Windows That Were Not Windows”), but also the presentation of women who were wronged. We see cunning women, strong and brave women, and the injustices they experience—all evidently present even today. Often, these wrongdoings result from the actions and words of men, and the less frequent but still not unusual acts of women towards men, where the violence of men is more physical (“Women Without Names”), the brutality of women is more psychological (“Road Ghost”); but above all, the possession of bodies by ghosts and spirits is the most uncanny of all.
Many of these tales are influenced by philosophy and superstition, offering not only true accounts but also moral tales stressing the importance and merits of discipline, humility, and even temperament for those lacking in them, particularly in terms of emotionality. What Ji Yun urges us to understand through these accounts is that history influences the present, and the past repeats itself (“Windows That Were Not Windows”). Through tales laced with underlying legal, political, and social structures, expectations and confirmations, these cautionary accounts are informed by schools of thoughts and taboos and suggest that “the future [is] working backwards to determine the past even as the past [is] working forward to determine the future” (“The Future in the Past”). These various philosophies and superstitions, along with their political and social implications, are reflected in Chinese society even today, emphasizing a continuous oscillation between the past and the present. Buddhism and Taoism, for example, are still practiced widely in Chinese society, along with the lasting fear of the consequences of evil-doings; as traditional beliefs and values are ever-dominant in Chinese society, it is easy to note the various similarities between the ideologies held previously—as evidenced in The Shadow Book of Ji Yun—and currently. Individuals in current Chinese society continue to follow the rules and religions of their ancestors, moving forward in time while also looking back, striving for the greater good and shunning the sinful and immoral.
Nor does life after death mean the end. Ji Yun tells stories of the yin and yang and the connection between the physical and spirits (“Checkpoints”; “A Dog In Exile”), and compares human souls to cities: they begin the same, develop the same, and devour memories as they grow, before dispersing them (“The Shadow of the Old City”). It is interesting to learn that the treatment of spirits differs not only internationally but also intra-nationally (“Checkpoints”), and how death rituals also differ (“Real Life in the Capital”). But after death, when people become ghosts and spirits, they usually linger—because they still have ties in the world of the living that they cannot let go of, unfinished tasks, the need to settle debts (“A Qing Dynasty Near-Death Experience”). The ghost and spirit worlds always have deep connections to the living—they are always watching. Ji Yun teaches us we must not undermine the humanity of ghosts (“One Extra at a Wedding”; “Not That Maid”), for they were once people, too.
Not only do ghosts and spirits return to certain people; they often return to nature, sharing a strong connection with the land and environment (“The Appearance of the Sea”). Ghosts, spirits, and people may appear in dreams or in reality as prophets, guides, offering advice or warnings—sometimes in physical form and sometimes through the means of nature (“Peonies”; “The Shao Yong Method”). And along with these beliefs come superstitions according to which there must be balance within the world: evil deeds always result in karma. Yet, ghosts are not always haunting presences but also well-meaning guides: “Perhaps the dead help us in ways that we do not perceive” (“Mistress Chen’s Devotion”). In the messages from the past which are Ji Yun’s stories, they speak to us, too.
Even by the end of these tales, however, there is still one question remaining: the question of the boundaries between ghosts of different nations. Where might the realms of the ghosts of different nations meet? When will they intersect? Will you always return to the land in which you were birthed? Or perhaps your wanderings may lead your spirit elsewhere? Indeed, what Ji Yun’s tales remind us is that reality, truly, is stranger than fiction. I will stop myself here, for you must dive into Ji Yun’s translated world of shadows yourself. “Those who find the supernatural world too strange to believe simply have not looked closely enough at the natural world. It is equally strange” (“Yeren Stones”). We should all issue a thank you to Yu and Branscum for allowing us a look into this strange world.