A young man meets a beautiful, noble-born widow who has a crush on him; the noblewoman’s servant girl helps the two of them orchestrate their trysts. But all is not what it seems…
There are many variations of this originally Chinese tale, some of which have been carried over to Japan too. My favorite is a version by Lafcadio Hearn, called “The Story of Ming-Y,” from his collection Some Chinese Ghosts. Hearn attributes the story to the thirteenth century collection Kin-Kou-Ki-Koan (which he translates as “The Marvelous Happenings of Ancient and of Recent Times”).
Ming-Y and Sië-Thao
Ming-Y is a young scholar who as been hired as a tutor into the household of the high commissioner Tchang, who lives just outside the city where Ming-Y’s parents live. Ming-Y lives at his employer’s house, but one spring he gets permission to visit his parents in the city. It’s on his way back to Tchang’s house when he first encounters a mysterious woman:
The dreamy joy of the day entered into the heart of Ming-Y; and he sat him down among the young blossoms, under the branches swaying against the violet sky, to drink in the perfume and the light, and to enjoy the great sweet silence. Even while thus reposing, a sound caused him to turn his eyes toward a shady place where wild peach-trees were in bloom; and he beheld a young woman, beautiful as the pinkening blossoms themselves, trying to hide among them. Though he looked for a moment only, Ming-Y could not avoid discerning the loveliness of her face, the golden purity of her complexion, and the brightness of her long eyes, that sparkled under a pair of brows as daintily curved as the wings of the silkworm butterfly outspread. Ming-Y at once turned his gaze away, and, rising quickly, proceeded on his journey. But so much embarrassed did he feel at the idea of those charming eyes peeping at him through the leaves, that he suffered the money he had been carrying in his sleeve to fall, without being aware of it. A few moments later he heard the patter of light feet running behind him, and a woman’s voice calling him by name. Turning his face in great surprise, he saw a comely servant-maid, who said to him, “Sir, my mistress bade me pick up and return you this silver which you dropped upon the road.” Ming-Y thanked the girl gracefully, and requested her to convey his compliments to her mistress. Then he proceeded on his way through the perfumed silence, athwart the shadows that dreamed along the forgotten path, dreaming himself also, and feeling his heart beating with strange quickness at the thought of the beautiful being that he had seen.
On another beautiful day, walking along this same path, he notices an elegant house that he’d never noticed before, just where he’d seen the woman peeping out at him. The lady’s maid invites him to visit, and he accepts. His hostess is named Sië, and to Ming-Y’s delight, she is not only beautiful, but accomplished. She sings beautifully and recites poetry of the great poets of the Tang Dynasty (five hundred years before), and she writes poetry, too — better than his. And she beats him at chess. Naturally, Ming-Y is smitten.
…as she paused to pledge him in a cup of wine, Ming-Y could not restrain himself from putting his arm about her round neck and drawing her dainty head closer to him, and kissing the lips that were so much ruddier and sweeter than the wine. Then their lips separated no more;—the night grew old, and they knew it not.
Upon returning home, Ming-Y tells his employer that his mother has requested Ming-Y to spend the spring evenings with his parents in the city. Lord Tchang is a kindly man, so he allows Ming-Y to “visit his parents” every evening, and return in the morning. Guess where Ming-Y really goes? This lasts all spring, into summer, then into fall…
Inevitably, Tchang runs into Ming-Y’s father, and asks about this strange arrangement, which of course, Ming-Y’s father knows nothing about. Tchang arranges for a servant to tail Ming-Y that night, but the servant loses Ming-Y on a bend in the path. Tchang sends for Ming-Y’s father, and the two of them wait at Tchang’s house for Ming-Y to return….
In the meantime, Sië sadly tells Ming-Y that this is their last night together. They drink and eat and sing more joyously than ever before, and in the morning Sië gives Ming-Y a gift — a beautiful agate brush case — and bids him goodbye, forever.
Ming-Y returns home, to find Tchang and his father waiting for him. He finally confesses the whole story, and takes his employer and father to the bend in the path where Sië home stands — only it’s not there. In its place is an old tomb, so moss-covered and worn down by age that it’s impossible to read the name on it. Then Tchang remembers an old verse:
“Surely the peach-flowers blossom over
the tomb of SIË-THAO.”
The older men quickly deduce that Ming-Y’s lover must have been the ghost of the legendary beauty Sië-Thao, the lover of the great poet and governor Kao-pien during the Tang dynasty.
Ming-Y is no worse off for this other-worldly affair. He thrives and marries into an illustrious family, and has many children. But he never ever forgets Sië-Thao.
You can read the whole story at Project Gutenberg. I recommend you do; it’s much more lovely than my brief synopsis.
I love this story because it’s romantic and bittersweet, and because the lady ghost is every bit her man’s equal in accomplishments (more than equal, in fact). The best part is that there really was a Sië-Thao (or Xue Tao, also known as Hongdu). She was a well-known poet during the Tang Dynasty. About a hundred of her poems still survive today (here are a few).
Botan Dōrō (The Peony Lantern)
There’s another variation of this story from a 14th century book of Chinese ghost stories called Jiandeng Xinhua (New Tales Under the Lamplight), which was adapted to a Japanese setting by Asai Ryoi in the 17th century. Botan Dōrō was then adapted into a rakugo (formal storytelling) and then to a kabuki play. Lafcadio Hearn retold the story in his book A Ghostly Japan. Botan Dōrō is another version of the “man sleeps with corpse” story, which I’ve written about before.
I’ve only read Hearn’s version; in that story, the woman is named Otsuyu (and her servant is Oyone); the young man is a samurai named Shinzaburô. The two fall in love while still alive, but are kept from each other; Otsuyo dies, pining away for Shinzaburô, then Oyone dies of grief over her mistress. Otsuyo’s ghost (with Oyone) begins to visit Shinzaburô, who doesn’t know she’s dead, until his servant sees her and realizes she’s a corpse. Shinzaburô gets talismans from a Buddhist priest to keep the ghosts out of the house. The ghosts eventually convince Shinzaburô’s servant to take away the talismans…
Apparently there are versions of Botan Dōrō that have a “happy” ending, in the sense that the love between man and ghost is stronger than death — the man is happy to die in Otsuyu’s arms. Hearn’s isn’t one of those. Shinzaburô is found wrapped in the arms of a skeleton, a look of horror on his face.
A Serpent’s Lust
Finally, there’s Ueda Akinari’s 18th century version, from Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain). Ueda’s version is adapted from a tale from the 17th century Ming collection Jingshi Tongyan (Warning Words to Penetrate the Age). In Ueda’s version, the protagonist Toyoo is again a scholar (kind of a shiftless younger son), and the beautiful widow and her servant are serpent-demons who have latched onto Toyoo and won’t let go — Toyoo marries her. It takes a couple of priests to rescue Toyoo: one to recognize that Toyoo’s wife is a demon and is sucking the life-essence out of Toyoo, and another one to exorcise the serpent-demon from out of Toyoo’s subsequent wife Tomiko. Toyoo survives and the serpent-demons are vanquished but Tomiko dies anyway. I feel sorry for her, poor innocent bystander.
I can’t find a version of “A Serpent’s Lust” online (I read it in Anthony Chamber’s translation of Tales of Moonlight and Rain). The story is one of two stories from the collection (the other is “The Reed-Choked House”) that form the basis of Kenji Mizoguchi’s beautiful 1953 movie Ugetsu. In the movie, the ghost is named Lady Wakasa, and she’s played by the amazing Machiko Kyo. Her lover Genjuro is played by Masayuki Mori; Mori and Kyo also played the murdered samurai and his wife in Kurosawa’s 1950 movie Rashomon. I did find a clip of Lady Wakasa and Genjuro. It’s quite a scene. Enjoy.