A TIME OF GHOSTS: CHAPTER 1 — THE HOUSE OF SORROWS

Dear Readers.

My latest book, A Time of Ghosts, is now available as an ebook, which should make it much less expensive than the previous “print” edition.  See the bottom of this page for details.

Here is a preview chapter.  It is copyrighted, so if you want to use any of it elsewhere, please ask first.

CHAPTER ONE:  THE HOUSE OF SORROWS

I was born in the doorway between two worlds. The old China — the China of emperors and mandarins, of bound feet and marvels — had long been dying but was not yet dead. The new China — its coming anticipated with both hope and fear — was not yet born.

It happened in the great house of many rooms that the Emperor himself had given my grandfather many years before — a place where only the faintest of curtains separated the living and the dead.

My first memory is of ghosts. I was three or four years old. Near sunset on a spring day I went alone into my parents’ bedroom to use the chamber pot. As I sat there, a sudden chill filled the air, and I was seized by a mingled sensation of emptiness and loneliness. At the same time I felt someone watching me from behind, though my back was to the wall. I turned my head to the right and looked over my shoulder at the surface of whitewashed brick.

Out of the flat wall popped two figures in the flowing garments of a hundred years before. They passed behind me, floating half-in, half-out of the wall, in total silence. I jerked my head to the left as they reached that side. Yes, there were two of them. They were facing the wall now, and the one nearest reached back and out toward me, gesturing and grasping like a woman urging a hesitant child to take her hand and follow.

I screamed in horror and ran from the room shrieking and weeping. My family pretended not to believe me. My aunt, in spite of my terror, led me back into the room, where nothing was visible but two large, black spiders on the wall. “See there!” she laughed, “Only two harmless spiders, and you imagined that they were strange creatures!” But there was uneasiness in her forced ridicule. Though I was only a small child, I was not timid. Spiders did not scare me. And I knew it was not spiders that I had seen.

I soon fell ill with a burning fever, and a drastic change came over me. I often lost consciousness, but conscious or unconscious, my mouth muttered on and on in a voice not mine — a voice with the depth and vocabulary of an adult.

My father was beside himself, and took me to a well-known Chinese doctor who had studied Western medicine. Trained in the science of Europe, he examined me carefully but found no reason for the mysterious fever. Finally he admitted that he had never seen anything like it, and could do nothing. He did, however, refer my father to an odd individual schooled in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. And he told my parents that he had verified the Herb Doctor’s trustworthiness in the following way: He visited him as an ordinary patient complaining of illness, and requested an examination and a prescription. The Herb Doctor performed a thorough check, and declared his system to be in harmonious balance with nothing wrong. The Western-trained doctor, however, demanded a prescription for his “illness.” The Herb Doctor refused. The patient then requested a re-examination, but the result was the same — nothing was wrong, and no prescription was given. On further insistence, a third examination was performed, and still nothing was found amiss, and the Herb Doctor absolutely refused to prescribe for a non-existent problem.

Had the herbalist been a fake or unreliable, he would have taken up brush and ink to write a prescription, and would have charged a sizable fee. It would have been an easy thing to do at the urging of an irritated patient. But he was tested three times and preserved his honesty. That is why the “Western” doctor felt confident in recommending him to my parents.

I was quickly taken to the Herb Doctor’s modest home, where he received his patients. His name was Ch’ing Yu Chou, and he was striking and unusual in appearance. He wore the robes of a Chinese scholar, yet in a careless manner. The backs of his shoes had been pushed down through slipping them on and off repeatedly, until they flattened permanently and flapped like slippers when he walked.

By conventional standards his face was ugly — the skin dark and heavily wrinkled, the jowls and chin sagging like those of a dog. His head was pointed and bald, except for a few wisps of hair that clung to the edges. His two front teeth were unusually long, and set amid an unpleasant assortment of neglected and discolored neighbors. That remarkable head perched atop an extremely skinny body.

He examined me intently. My fever, he concluded, was the result of the terror of my experience. My soul had flown from the body, and a ghost had taken its place. That explained the strange adult voice and words coming from the small mouth of a child. It was time for the treatment. He reached out a clawed hand with nails some three inches long, and dipping an extended nail first into one small bottle and removing some powder, then into another from which he extracted a different powder, he prepared a mixture that he folded into a small paper packet. He said it was to be administered with the milk of a human, obtained from a woman who sold her own for such purpose.

The unusual medicine was fed to me while I was unconscious, still gabbling on in a man’s voice. As I lay writhing, head filled with nightmares, I suddenly screamed loudly. At that moment the invading presence left me and I felt the intense heat of the fever rapidly dissipated by a refreshing coolness that spread slowly throughout my body. The strange doctor had cured me. My father was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he gave Ch’ing Yu Chou, the odd Herb Doctor, a permanent dwelling in our family mansion, and with it financial support and friendship for life.

* * *

Mine was not the first strange experience in that great house. My grandfather was a military general of Manchu warrior lineage. He had a violent temper, yet could be kind and softhearted. Strongly built, with broad shoulders and heavy eyebrows, he wore the traditional robe and round cap, and his long, braided pigtail hung down behind as was customary in the latter days of the Ch’ing Dynasty. His mansion, in which I spent my childhood, was a large, white-plastered brick structure with a tiled roof. It lay on the Pearl River in the northern part of the city of Canton.

I have said that the Emperor gave it to him, and though officially true, it is not the whole truth. It really came to him through the wiles of the evil old Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, the real ruler of China, whose hands were stained with the blood of many.

At that time my grandfather was part of the aristocracy in the north of China. The Imperial Court of those days was a nightmarish drama of greed and lust for power, and Tzu Hsi, like a wicked puppeteer, held strings connected to all the secret places of the Forbidden City in Peking. Even the emperor Kuang Hsu danced at her will, and when his mouth moved it was the wishes of Tzu Hsi that were heard.

My grandfather had no stomach for her black designs, and she knew it. The Empress sniffed the air constantly for the slightest whiff of revolt, and feared that my grandfather owed his allegiance more to the puppet Emperor than to her. Consequently she contrived to remove him a safe distance from the capitol. He was informed that for “years of loyalty to the Emperor” he was to be given a fine mansion in the city of Canton, far in the South.

An imperial gift could not be refused, so there was no choice but to leave Peking. Tzu Hsi thus succeeded in banishing my grandfather under the guise of imperial benevolence, but her evil plans for him did not end there. Something far more sinister was to come — the mansion. There was something very wrong with it.

My grandfather soon heard fragments of a grim story. When given to my family, the house had lain empty for some two years. Previously it had been the residence of a high official who had initially supported the wicked Dowager Empress in her plot to keep her son, the Emperor, weak and subservient. But for some reason the former owner changed allegiance, and was quickly perceived as a threat to Tzu Hsi’s power.

The Empress, who seemed to know everything whispered in the shadows, struck quickly and violently. The official was executed in Peking, and all his family in Canton –relatives, children, even servants — were given the “imperial favor” of dying at the hands of soldiers or of committing suicide as the soldiers watched.

The mansion became a scene of unspeakable gruesomeness as soldiers stabbed weeping women and children, while other unfortunates fell on their own knives, hanged themselves, or jumped to their deaths down the deep well in the inner garden. That was the house of suffering and sorrow that Tzu Hsi gave smilingly to my grandfather, knowing he had no choice but to accept.

On the day my grandfather came to officially claim the mansion, he was borne in a palanquin carried by four men. A fearsome guard with a sword led the way. At the rear came ten others, carrying household possessions.

When the procession reached the outer gate, Grandfather got out of the palanquin and prepared to ceremonially enter the house as its new master. But he took only a few steps and halted in amazement. There on the road in front of the gate was a sewer grating, and on the curbstone beside it sat two uncanny creatures, like shrunken, shriveled old men, with outsized heads on tiny bodies with unnaturally small limbs. They were no more than two and one-half feet tall. Each had a palm leaf in his hand, and with these they waved my grandfather away, as if saying “Go back! Go back! Go back!” Even stranger, he found that only he could see them.

When he recovered his composure he addressed them politely, asking leave to pass. Still they motioned him away. Finally he lost patience and pushed forward. It was as though he walked into an invisible wall. He stumbled and fell, hurting his leg. But he was, as I have said, a man of violent temper and a general, and not to be dissuaded from his path, not even by big-headed ghosts. He managed somehow to get to his feet and awkwardly limped into the house, thus completing the ceremony of ownership.

When he came to the mansion a second time, the strange creatures again blocked his path, waving him away. Having already had his pride offended, he drew a large scimitar and struck at them. He succeeded only in damaging the valuable weapon, which also had been a gift from the Emperor. To harm an imperial gift was considered exceedingly shameful, and presaged ill fortune.

Grandfather, however, being headstrong and proud, was so furious and wrought-up that he planned a great defiance of the ghosts. He bought strings of big firecrackers and brought them on his third visit. There sat the strange, wizened creatures, waving him away. He hesitated not a moment, but lit the long strings of firecrackers and threw them directly at the ghosts. There was a great volley of sharp explosions, and my grandfather walked through the smoke and smell of burnt gunpowder and entered the house in triumph.

That night he fell ill. And as he slipped into an uneasy sleep, he had a peculiar dream. The creatures from the curbstone before the gate appeared to him, saying they had tried repeatedly to warn him away from the evil house. But not only had he ignored them, he had insulted them. So now they were departing, leaving him to his fate — his son would not live to carry on his name.

The illness never completely left my grandfather. At first he tried to forget the troubling dream, but disturbing events called it repeatedly to mind. His son — the Little Master — was only some four years old when odd things began to happen around him. Servants often heard him playing with someone, yet when they checked he was always alone. As he grew older they frequently heard him talking to another as he studied, but when they peeked in, no one was there but the Little Master.

Such strange happenings played so on the mind of my grandfather that he would not leave the child alone within the house, and when they went out he was always near the boy and always carried a sword. And then Grandfather ordered the well in the inner garden filled in. Too many strange sounds had been heard coming from it — weird voices, mutterings, whispering, singing, and sighing.

Time passed, but my grandfather did not relax his vigilance. The boy, now thirteen years old, practiced martial arts daily with a sword he kept hung high on a nail. One day after practice he went to return the weapon to its place. He had to stand on a stool to reach it.

There are two versions of what happened next. One says that as he reached up to hang the sword he slipped, and the nail-head, which somehow had become sharp, caught his hand and tore the skin as he fell. The other account, told by the servant who witnessed the event, says that as the boy stretched his arm up to hang his sword, a hand reached out of the wall, grabbed the lad’s wrist, and pulled his palm onto the sharp nail. The servant screamed and reached for the boy, but the Little Master slipped off the stool, the nail ripping his hand open as he fell.

It little matters which version is more accurate. The wound became terribly infected and the boy soon died of tetanus. My grandfather’s dark dream proved true. In spite of his great sorrow, my grandfather remained defiant. The ghosts dared to take his son? Then he would have another! And so within two years he adopted a young boy born to my aunt as his own.

* * *

A Chinese proverb states that no matter how great a family may be, its wealth will not outlast three generations. The life of the Herb Doctor, Ch’ing Yu Chou, who took up residence in our mansion, exemplified that.

He was born into a family of Manchu origin, descendants of the strongly-built warrior people who rode into China on horses and took the reins of power centuries before, initiating the Ch’ing Dynasty. For three generations his family had produced big, strong sons who became generals, military killers. The third-generation general, like those before him, was powerful and imperious, and had taken many lives. But when he produced an heir, the child was born premature and weak. And though the man had many wives, no more children were born to him.

So the aging general watched with concern as the sickly boy grew into his teens. Each year it became more obvious that the son had neither the strength nor the inclination for a general’s life. The old father found himself thinking about his own life. Looking back over the years that lay behind him like withered petals, what had his wealth and power really gained for him? Once he began such thinking, he could not stop. With growing uneasiness he recalled the men he had killed with his fierce strength, and he looked again at his gentle son. What would become of the boy in this vicious world?

At that moment something changed deeply and completely in the old general. He decided to abandon his riches and authority for the tattered robes of a Buddhist monk. He would live out his remaining days in a quiet monastery, where he hoped to find peace both in this life and the next. He gave his son in adoption to a Buddhist family and set out for a distant temple. There he had his head shaved and exchanged his fine silk garments for the coarse robes of a follower of the Enlightened One.

He had taken careful thought beforehand for his son’s future, making arrangements for his education in the art of herbal medicine at another temple so that the boy would have a vocation and could make his own way in the world.  His son thus began learning as a child the skills that would later save my life.

As the gentle, quiet boy grew into a young man, he found that he liked the peace and tranquility of monastic life. He thought to become a monk. The master of the temple, however, had long watched him closely, and told him plainly that he was not of the right material. The master had rightly discerned that the general’s son was homosexual, and consequently that it would not be good for him to live shut up in a community of men, any more than it would be advisable for a young heterosexual monk to live in a community of nuns. So though the young man liked the quiet, pious life of the monastery, he could no longer remain there.

Nonetheless, when he returned to the “World of Dust,” he lived in it much like a monk. In his childhood he had been surrounded by wealth and possessions. In the monastery he learned to do without. Now he was poor. But material things held no attraction for him, and he led a very simple life. His food, like that of monks, was vegetarian.

It seemed that none of the pride and aggressiveness of former generations lived on in him. If someone stepped on his foot, it was he who apologized. His behavior was like that of the third son in the old proverb:

A father asked each of his three sons what he would do if someone were to spit in his face. The first son replied, “I would say, ‘Please don’t do it. If you do it again I will fight.’” The second son answered, “I would take out a cloth and wipe the spit from my face.” But the third son replied, “I would just forget about it and let the spit dry on my face.”

The father did not approve the first answer because it revealed that the son took offense and was aggressive. He did not entirely approve the second answer because wiping away the spit showed that it was regarded as offensive. He approved the third son’s reply because it showed that no offense was felt and even the spit was not seen as repulsive. And that is how the Herb Doctor lived his life and conducted himself in human affairs.

Though he paid little attention to the condition of his clothing and did not bathe as often as some might have thought proper, he kept the Buddhist shrine in his room immaculately clean. There were always a few fresh flowers before the images of Shakyamuni and Kuan Yin. Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha who appeared in India. Kuan Yin is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whose name means “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” Sometimes the flowers were gifts from grateful patients (he charged nothing for treatment, but accepted whatever was freely given); sometimes they were simple wild flowers he happened upon in his wanderings.

He spent much time in continuous repetition of the name of the Buddha Amitabha, noting each repetition by slipping another of the one hundred and eight beads on the string through his fingers. Often he sat lost for hours in meditation, his feet resting on his thighs in the lotus posture. It must have been restful and invigorating, because in our home he was always the latest to sleep and the earliest to rise.

Strange to say, he did have a wife. She was a girl who had been bought for him when he was young. She was given the chance to marry another when he went to study in the temple, but chose not to, and when he returned to the world they were married — a marriage never physically consummated.

* * *

Before the Herb Doctor could take up residence with us, there was still the matter of the house. Life could never be peaceful in a place so infested with tormented and malicious spirits. So he made ready to cleanse it and expel the ghosts.

First he went to the front of our dwelling. There he placed two sharp swords, which hung threateningly across the entrance. Then he moved to the center of the mansion, where on the house-post he suspended an old bag with a drawstring about its opening. Next he wrote many copies of a Taoist talismanic symbol. These he hung on all the walls. After that he cut up a great deal of paper into life-sized images of soldiers. Then he brushed a poem onto paper in black, fluid characters:

Unfair things have a reason;
If there is debt, a loaner exists.
Far, far away is Heaven;
So deep, deep, is Hell.
Your spirit may go wherever it will,
But trouble not the innocent.

And then he wrote another:

Good to good,
Bad to bad;
High is high,
Low is low;
Each returns to its origin.

He had everyone leave the house, being sure to close all the bedroom doors tightly. We watched as he seated himself in an open space in the garden, mumbling and mumbling incantation-like words.  As he muttered on and on, it seemed to my astonished eyes that the paper soldiers rose and stood vigilantly beside him.

All this took place on a calm and beautiful night. We were silent as he burned the papers on which he had written the poems. As they caught flame and flared up, I was jolted and frightened by a sudden crash of thunder. The quiet night turned almost instantly into a storm, and as rain began to pelt down there was a continuous, growling roll of thunder.

The Herb Doctor took a long, horsetail-like whisk, and with it he passed around the house, flicking the long hairs to and fro as he chanted. The spiritual force he created was so compelling that the evil spirits were driven to the entrance like leaves blown before the wind. There they met the swords. The gentler ghosts were pulled helplessly into the open bag on the central house-post. The Herb Doctor took the bag and pulled the drawstring tight. As he did so the thunder and rain ceased, and the night was tranquil again. A servant later told us that he saw blood on the swords across the house entrance. The doctor took the bag away, and we did not ask what became of it.

His final act on that strange night was to tell my grandparents that on the following day, they were to call Buddhist monks and nuns to the house. His instructions were followed, and for three days the air in the old mansion was filled with the chanting of sutras and dharanis to aid the tormented spirits in the other world.

Nine paper bridges were constructed and burned during the intoning of the texts to provide passage out of the nine levels of Hell. Paper money, clothes, and palanquins were burned as the monks and nuns prayed for the release of the suffering ghosts.

Now what is one to make of all this? I can only say that it did happen. I witnessed it, as did the others in the family. We can be modern and scientific and say that the ritual was performed for its psychological effect on us all. One may believe what one likes. But the fact is that from the night of the uncanny storm, all the strange sounds and apparitions within the house ceased, and one could feel that its unhealthy atmosphere had passed away. The living were now the only residents in the old mansion.

There is much more that one could say of the remarkable Ch’ing Yu Chou. I have called him the Herb Doctor for simplicity’s sake, though that was but one of his many skills. He was adept at calligraphy, music, poetry, and was in particular a great scholar of the I Ching, the Book of Changes, in which all that can happen in this world is set forth in the symbolic forms of trigrams and hexagrams. One who learns their transformations and mutations can accurately predict the future, though to do this is far more difficult than Western books on the subject would lead one to believe.

All the Herb Doctor’s learning was pervaded by a deeply Buddhist piety. This had a strong influence on my father, who was very impressed by his new-found friend’s freedom from bondage to self-importance and material possessions. The Herb Doctor treated life and its sorrows and joys as a temporary, passing show to which one should no more become attached than any sensible person would cling to the illusory images moving across a movie screen. One could see from his life that he had realized the significance of the old Chinese tale of the man who got what he wanted. This is the story in brief:

A poor man had just put his rice over the fire to cook when a sage appeared at his door. The two sat down and talked. “What would you like your life to be?” the sage asked. The poor man pondered, then replied that he could think of nothing more glorious than to be wealthy and powerful, surrounded by beautiful women. As he talked on, he suddenly found himself in completely different circumstances. The walls of his ramshackle hut faded and vanished, and he forgot all his years of poverty and discovered that he had become rich.

As time passed his wealth and power grew ever greater, and he experienced all the delights that money, authority, and possessions can bring. But as the years fell away, though it seemed that he had everything a man could want, still something seemed to be missing. He felt himself growing old. His body began to weaken, his senses lost their sharpness. Former delights could no longer please, and for newer pleasures he seemed pressed to find the strength.

Finally, as death drew inescapably near, he suddenly awoke in his own hut to the smell of rice cooked to perfection. He realized that it had all been a dream. All the years of his extravagant life — all the feelings, desires, and joys — everything had taken place during the time it took a pot of rice to cook.

Years later, after the Communists took control of China, my father worried about the uncertain future. He sadly warned the Herb Doctor that he was not sure he would be able to support him much longer. The old doctor was not the least disturbed. “Don’t worry,” he said, “Soon I shall have the means to support myself.” And it happened just that way. He was called by the Communists to become a professor of herbal medicine at the university.

I recall how my father once laughingly mentioned something the Herb Doctor had told him:

“Do you know what he said?” my father chuckled, “He told me that when he dies he will have a fine coffin and eight thousand people will attend his funeral!” He laughed again. “Actually, I think I will have to buy his coffin for him when the time comes!”

But things turned out precisely as the Herb Doctor predicted. He knew in advance the day of his death, just as very developed Buddhists are said to. And when that day came, he bathed and prepared himself and died quietly. And because he had become a very well known and highly respected university professor, eight thousand mourners attended his funeral.

And further, when this strange, kindly, self-effacing old man who had done so much good for me and for others was cremated, he had a final surprise for us. In his ashes were found sarira, the hard stone-like objects left behind when the bodies of great saints are burned.

*Copyright David Coomler & Ruby Tang

———–

HOW TO GET THE BOOK:

I am happy to report that those of you who have been waiting to read my book A Time of Ghosts will now be able to read it quite inexpensively, and in most any standard digital mode.

It was included in the “30 Best Books on China” reader recommendations in the Guardian (U.K.) newspaper, which had this summary:

“The true story of a child who endured the earth-shaking transition of China to communism and found himself inundated in a sea of puzzling propaganda and prejudice. Then, growing to manhood and facing a tremendous internal struggle, he finally embarked on a risky, adventurous, and remarkably revealing odyssey to find a door out of the mental prison that China under communism had become.”

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/table/2011/jun/30/best-books-china-recommendations)

Here is a list of the major sites where it is available (in addition to other online retailers), with direct URLs to the book that you may cut and paste to your browser:

This is for people who want to go directly to it without searching. They can cut and paste the URL of their choice:

Ebookit.com (for all major digital formats; use dropdown box to choose):
http://www.ebookit.com/books/0000002860/A-Time-of-Ghosts.html

Amazon.com (for Kindle; click on the book and it will bring up some very favorable reviews):
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=%22a+time+of+ghosts%22+coomler

BarnesandNoble.com (for Nook):

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/time-of-ghosts-hok-pang-tang/1103302498?ean=2940016706030

For iPad, (etc.) use ebookit .com (see above) format dropdown box, or use your iBooks app.

Ebookstore (for Sony Ereader):
https://ebookstore.sony.com/ebook/hok-pang-tang/a-time-of-ghosts/_/R-400000000000001050736

Google books:
https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=UY-H0OLKaN8C

Kobobooks.com (for Kobo):
http://www.kobobooks.com/ebook/A-Time-of-Ghosts/book-IRFFLJjalESkualZQPA72g/page1.html?s=gOXStatp9Ea3DyGw0y7ZaA&r=1

As you may recall, I wrote this book over a long period of time through personal conversations with my (now deceased) physician and long-time friend Hok-Pang Tang.

Here is the “squiggle” on it:

Description: A Time of Ghosts is the exciting and absorbing account of Dr. Hok-Pang Tang, who was born into a wealthy and prominent Chinese family in the years before the Communist takeover, but whose family suffered a drastic fall with the coming of the the new regime.

It offers a vivid personal insight not only into a traumatic period in Chinese history, but also a rare and revealing glimpse at the “supernatural” subculture that survived even under Communism.

A Time of Ghosts follows Dr. Tang’s life from his overindulged childhood on through the bitter shocks of the transition to Communism, and finally to his repeated attempts to escape from a soul-destroying political and social system. It is a true personal history that reads like an adventure novel.

Because of its historical and human significance, I have long wanted to make this book easily and inexpensively available, and the digital format has enabled me to do that. My personal preference is for printed books, but I know that many now use the digital format through one device or another to save both space and money.

If you happen to read the book, I would very much like to hear your reaction to it. To make a comment (all comments here are private, unless requested otherwise), just click on the “comment” button on this page.

David

 

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