Saturday, April 13, 2013

Things that go bump in the night

This article is from The Star newspaper dated 14 April 2013.

It’s striking sometimes how similar the supernatural creatures and lores of cultures that seem far apart from each other are. 

VARIOUS cultures around the world, especially those centred upon, or derived from, animism have beliefs in the supernatural, of things and events incomprehensible to the human mind. It is a cultural universal, and we are all familiar with frightening stories of things that go bump in the night.

Whether we choose to believe in them or not, we are always surrounded by tales of the supernatural, in literature or movies, or from personal accounts of friends and families.

This fascination with the unknown gave rise to the subculture of ghost hunting and the camping tradition of telling ghost stories.

Some cultures even celebrate the dead (and the undead), like the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, the Mexican Day of the Dead and, of course, Halloween. In Japanese folklore, every year, ghouls and ghosts take to the streets during the summer nights. It is known as Hyakki Yagy (Night Parade of 100 Demons).

Hyakki Yagy is a famous theme in Japanese art. On these days, the ghouls and ghosts come out to play, and supernatural occurrences are at their peak. Recently, I picked up Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide for a fun read, and interestingly, I can’t help but make comparisons to our own versions of yokai, the supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore. One of them is the zashiki warashi, a child poltergeist who haunts and inhabits houses. Although it loves to play pranks on people, it is considered harmless. The Japanese believe that a zashiki warashi brings good fortune to the house it inhabits and that the family will prosper as long as it stays.

But if the house is neglected, then the child spirit will leave, and that’s when the real problem comes. As it leaves the house, so does the good fortune and the family will be left in ruins – bankruptcy, disaster, domestic strife.

Zashiki warashi is very much like our toyol. The toyol is a child-like ghoul believed to be a manifestation of an unborn child. It is kept by its master to do his or her bidding, usually stealing or other petty crimes. It’s commonly rumoured that whenever someone becomes rich that the person is keeping a toyol. The toyol, like the zashiki warashi, loves to play pranks on people but is considered harmless.

Nuke kubi is a female creature who can fully detach her head from her body. She looks like a normal woman during the day but turns into nuke kubi at night, with her head flying off in search of human prey. Because of her appearance as a woman during the day, it is thought that the nuke kubi may have human spouses.

To kill a nuke kubi, one needs to find her immobile body and move it somewhere else. The nuke kubi will die if she cannot reconnect with her body by sunrise.

Again the nuke kubi is strikingly similar to our penanggalan, a flying head with its intestines attached. It is believed that the penanggalan is a woman who practices black magic. The woman is able to detach her head, along with her intestines, from her body, and flies in the dead of the night in search of blood, preferably from an infant or a woman giving birth.

To kill a penanggalan, one needs to find her headless body, fill it with broken glass and nails so that when she tries to reattach to her body, her intestines will be severed by the sharp objects.

Penanggalan has many other variations in other South-East Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Sceptics and non-believers usually apply logic and common sense to brush aside beliefs in the supernatural. Perhaps there are certain explanations for these happenings, like sleep paralysis where our mind is aware but our body shuts down. It’s logical for those who have experienced it to claim that they have been held down by a spirit while sleeping.

And often in fear, our mind plays tricks and we may conjure images or shadows that would further intensify our own fears. Often stories like this would end with the person praying and the spirit going away, but praying is a form of meditation and helps calm the body down, hence “releasing” the spirit.

Some stories of ghosts are lessons or advice to children, like the hantu kopek who preys on children at night. It’s probably so children are encouraged to come home by dusk or else risk being kidnapped by this creature.

Or like the Japanese kappa, a water yokai who drowns children lest they swim too far out. Both these stories are intended to scare children for their own safety.

But I’d like to think that we’re not the only beings living in this world, or worlds. The human eye is limited and there is still so much more that humans do not know about this world. Do we brush aside the possibility of the otherworldly just because we can’t see, or refuse to see?

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Origin of Qing Ming

Qīng Míng Jié (literally “Clear, Bright Festival”) is said to originate from Hánshí (寒食 - cold meal) Festival, which dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period in China (722 - 481 B.C.). Qing Ming falls on the 104th day after the winter solstice (or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox). This year Qing Ming falls on 4th April 2013.

The day commemorates a man called Jie Zitui, who was a loyal follower of Duke Wen during the Jin State. Unfortunately, due the turmoil of the state at the time, Duke Wen (who was not yet a Duke at that point) was exiled and spent the next 19 years living nomadically with Jie, scraping by on nothing but the bare minimum of life’s necessities.

At one point, the Duke became so close to the point of starvation that Jie cut a piece of flesh from his thigh to make a soup for Wen. The soup ended up saving Wen’s life, and the Duke was so touched at Jie's sacrifice that he promised to reward Jie later on.

Eventually, Wen reclaimed his position on the throne and became the Duke of Jin State. He proceeded to reward all those who assisted him in reclaiming his position, however, for some reason he left out Jie. When reminded of the life-saving soup Jie made for him in dire need, the Duke became regretful and went out in search of Jie to reward him. It was at that time that the Duke had learned Jie had moved to some remote forest with his mother.

Unable to locate Jie himself, he ordered his men to set the forest on fire in attempt to force Jie out so that he could reward Jie and rid his own feelings of guilt. The fire, however, ended up doing just the opposite and burned Jie, along with his mother, alive.

Realizing the error of his ways and feeling remorseful over the loss of Jie, Duke Wen from there on order 3 days of the year to be held without fire (Hanshi Festival) in order to commemorate Jie Zitui’s death.

Today, Hanshi Festival has been combined with Qing Ming Festival, whereby not only Jie Zitui is remembered, but all ancestors in general. It is a holiday for families to honor their ancestors at their grave sites, hence the English translation of the term “Tomb Sweeping Holiday”.