artist, college professor, museum board director and educational software developer

Talking Ghosts 

Kirk Ke Wang


Halloween comes and it’s a time for ghost stories.

In China, there is also a holiday like the Halloween, for people to pay respect to the dead. Instead of autumn, it is celebrated in spring, two weeks after the vernal equinox according to Chinese lunar calendar. It typically falls on April 4, 5 or 6th in Western calendar. It’s called Qingming Festival(清明节). Qingming in Chinese means purity and understanding.

When I was a child our family moved to a small town about 250 miles north of Shanghai. Every Qingming Festival night, we heard voices weeping and chanting outside of the walls of our courtyard. We saw people kneeled on street curbs facing towards our house, bowing down to make kowtows with their heads touching the ground. They lit up candles and incense. They burned the spiritual money, a currency for the dead. Most them were old ladies. But occasionally we saw some young people accompanying them.

Curiously I asked my parents what it was about. As new residents of the town, they guessed that there might be an Earth Temple (土地庙) near our house in the old days and people were worshipping the earth god by following the tradition.

In late 1960s, China had a border conflict with its northern neighbor, the Soviet Union. Concerning the possibility of an escalated war, the government called on citizens to dig air-raid shelters in case a nuclear attack.

We had a large courtyard and the authority ordered us to share. All the sudden, our quiet courtyard was swarming with people. We had no idea that we lived among so many neighbors. Soon our playground was piled up with dirt and our garden was shaped in vertical and horizontal ditches, like mazes.

It couldn’t make us children more excited than this! The neighboring kids and I enjoyed chasing and running along the ditches, while adults digging and shoveling dirt.

Suddenly, accompanying a loud cracking sound, I felt someone grabbed my right leg and dragged it into a hole under the bottom of the ditch. My foot stepped on something mushy and soft.

Terrified, I cried for help. Grownups hurriedly rushed over and pulled me out of the hole. My leg was covered with white wet lime paste and a fetid odor permeated the air. With more digging, the adults cleared out an old rotten coffin.

Since then, the deeper ditches were dug, more coffins were found, some big and some small. Some coffins were on top of others exposing the history of the buries. Some were disintegrated into earth and others still shined with its color and decals. The scale and quality of materials for the coffins hinted the social status of the dead. White bones were scattered everywhere, which made our courtyard a true “bone yard”.

Now the adults realized that we were living on top of an old graveyard. It elucidated the rituals in front of our house every spring. Despite the graves were demolished and a new town built atop, descendants or relatives of the buried still held on the memories of their loved ones, like the name of the Qingming Festival suggested, pure and understanding.

As part of my early education, I understood the meaning of Qingming Festival, for which people also called “the Tomb-sweeping Day”.

It was the heyday of Cultural Revolution. Any thoughts of spirituality, religion, demons and ghosts were censured as superstition. They were antithesis to Carl Marx.

The grownups evanescently brushed it over, pretending unconcerned of the fact that we were living on top of the dead. But the enthusiasm of digging trenches diminished. Less and less people showed up in our courtyard. The fear for ghosts was seemly greater than the fear for a soviet attack. Eventually, people filled up all the ditches.

Things didn’t stop there. Ever since I stepped into the first coffin, the peaceful neighborhood was never the same.

One hot summer evening, when we were sitting in the courtyard enjoying the breeze cooling off the heat, we heard a woman’s terrifying scream piercing through the air. A newly wedded young woman ran out of her house, naked and wet. Her body shivered and her eyes opened so wide that you could see clearly the blood veins from her dilator pupillae.

After a great effort to calm her down, she told her story.

As usual, she took a bath after dinner. She locked the door. In those pre-air-conditioning days, she habitually kept the windows open while taking a bath. To avoid peeping eyes from adjacent buildings, she turned off the lights. In the dark, she soaked herself in a wooden basin and let the warm water paralyze her into a comforting mental state.

In the dark, she felt her new husband breathing closer to her. As they usually did, she enjoyed her husband’s hands gently rubbing her body with the bubbling soap. The room was quite except the sound of splashing water…

When the bath was over, the woman stood up and said: “dear, could you please hand me the towel?”

In the dark, a hand handed her the towel.

Just at that moment, she remembered that her husband was currently on a business trip in another city hundreds of miles away!

She ruptured a scream, busted open the locked door and ran into the street without the towel.

After the discovery of the underground graveyard, many stories of ghost encounters rumored around the neighborhood. A lady said that she saw a woman sat next to her on bed knitting a sweater. Another said he saw footprints moving on his ceiling and walls.

People were all saying that we waked up the sleeping ghosts when digging those air-raid shelters.

Reluctantly people still had to live there. In a time of housing scarcity, you did not have many choices.

Personally, I never directly saw any ghosts. But I knew they were there.

Many times, during my childhood living in that house, I was awoken by someone playing a bamboo flute, so airy, aloof and slightly despondent.
Sometimes I heard a boy shepherding buffalos with his high pitch tenor echoed on a vast Mongolian prairie, desolate yet beautiful. I often wandered if there was a musician buried under my bed.

I was never afraid of ghosts. They probably even wrought my life.

Here is my story of meeting a ghost.

One day, a friend showed off his old brother’s homemade shortwave radio. As a typical school boy, I was fascinated by that invention. I ambitioned to make a radio by myself, despite not knowing anything about the principles of physics and electricity.

In China, the electrical voltage is 220v, which can electrocute a person fatally.

I imitated my friend’s model and found a piece of magnetic iron and wrapped some thin copper wires around it. That’s it, done!

Thrilled, I looked around for an electrical outlet to test my new innovation.

The only outlet I could find was in my mom’s bedroom. It was in the afternoon and my mother was taking a nap. A siesta after lunch was a common custom in China.

I sneaked in the bedroom and quietly removed the bedside lamp from the outlet.

My mother was still soundly sleeping.

Right at the moment when I was using my two bare hands to insert two bare copper wires into the holes of the electrical outlet, my mother suddenly opened her eyes and shouted: “What are you doing!”

I believe, a ghost, who maybe was also a mother, saw all this and she didn’t want to see another mother waking up from a siesta and discovered her only son was dead beside her bed. She used her magic power to wake my mom at a crucial moment of a few seconds before the tragedy.

Every time when my mom and I talked about this, I felt so lucky and grateful.

Thank you, my ghost protector!

Back to the graveyard. When people dug the coffins, they also found many tombstones.

How strange that was? Someone found a broken tombstone written in a foreign language. Later it was identified as English.

How could a foreigner buried in a small town of China?

Local anthropology enthusiasts discovered that, longtime ago, there were a group of missionaries from Europe and America came to this area. They established a church, a school and a hospital. Some of them married to local Chinese women and lived there for the rest of their lives. Even today, a well-known local hospital named “Hospital of Benevolence” can be traced back to this group.

We buried the foreign tombstone under the doorway outside of our house and we walked over it almost every day.

I try not to envisage the reason why I was always intrigued by Western literature and arts, since my early age. Why did I choose to study western art in colleges and later choose to live in the Western world for over 30 years?

I wonder sometimes.

Did the foreign ghost under our house feel lonely and homesick? Did he plot to visit his homeland through my manifestation?

Woo... Goosebumps…

My children are all born in America and they will live here forever. I may more likely choose to die here, so I could be closer to them.

But, I am at ease now. I wonder, after I am long gone, when I feel homesick, can I also find a living soul here to take me home?

The world is getting smaller with new inventions. Nowadays, I could just sit on my living-room couch to pay a visit to China.

One night, I was obsessed by the idea of revisiting our courtyard above the graveyard in China. I google-mapped and zoomed in the place where our old house was. Astonishingly, I discovered that the very place of my bedroom is now at the center of a cross section of a super highway, surrounded by many high-rise buildings.

Now, the lonely ghost underneath can hitchhike a ride to visit any places in a lightning speed!

(My painting “Dreaming Buffalo”, mixed media on canvas, 102”x78”)


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