Friday, June 24, 2016

The Soul of the Great Bell

Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904)
From Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings

The Yongle Bell, cast in 1403 at the end of the first year of the reign of the Emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. Weighing nearly fifty tons, its sound could be heard fifty kilometers away on a clear night. The bell is housed in the Great Bell Temple, located in the Haidian District of Beijing and built in the year 1733. Image courtesy of Cultural China.
One of the journalist Lafcadio Hearn’s earliest books was a collection of adaptations of Chinese legends—which he completed even though he actually knew next to nothing of the Chinese language. While working on the proofs for the book, he corresponded frequently with his friend Elizabeth Bisland, a former colleague at the New Orleans Times Democrat who had moved in 1887 to New York to become an editor at Vogue. (Bisland would became famous two years later, when she raced New York World reporter Nellie Bly around the world, attempting to beat Phileas Fogg's fictitious record in the famous Jules Verne novel. She lost the race, although both women made the trip in less than eighty days.) Hearn’s letters to Bisland included updates about his struggling career as fiction writer and anecdotes about the remarkable characters he continued to meet in New Orleans. In one letter he complained that his latest attempt to learn Chinese had ended in failure. “My last pet was a Chinese doctor, whose name I cannot even pronounce. He tried to teach me Chinese; but I discovered the nasal tones almost impossible to imitate.”

His failure to learn the language didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the “weird beauty” of the six tales included in his book, and he instead relied on the work of various European Sinologists to help him create his own versions and understand the historical and linguistic allusions. “To such great explorers,” he acknowledged in a preface, “the realm of Cathayan story belongs by right of discovery and conquest; yet the humbler traveller who follows wonderingly after them into the vast and mysterious pleasure-grounds of Chinese fancy may surely be permitted to cull a few of the marvellous flowers there growing.”

Illustration of Ko-Ngai’s tale, from P. Dabry
de Thiersant’s La piété filiale en Chine (1877)
“The Soul of the Great Bell, ” the opening story of Hearn’s Some Chinese Ghosts, is perhaps the one best known today. Hearn’s appendix offers some bibliographic background:
The story of Ko-Ngai is one of the collection entitled Te-Hiao-Tou-Choué, or “A Hundred Examples of Filial Piety.” It is very simply told by the Chinese narrator. The scholarly French consul, P. Dabry de Thiersant, translated and published in 1877 a portion of the book, including the legend of the Bell. His translation is enriched with a number of Chinese drawings. . . .
The drawing that accompanied Ko-Ngai’s story in Thiersant’s book is reproduced to the left.

Twenty years later, after Hearn had been living in Japan for a decade, he admitted that his versions of the tales were the “early work of a man who tried to understand the Far East from books,—and couldn’t; but then, the real purpose of the stories was only artistic.” Nevertheless, he insisted, “I would change nothing.”

(For additional information on Lafcadio Hearn, see the introduction to the previous Story of the Week, “The Legend of Tchi-Niu,” also from Some Chinese Ghosts.)

Notes: The Son of Heaven is an honorific for the Emperor of China. Hearn’s book also included a glossary of terms that might be unfamiliar to American readers, although most of them should be clear from context. His definitions of the terms used in this story are reprinted below:
  • Fo. Buddha is called Fo, Fuh, Fuh-tu, Hwut, F˘at, in various Chinese dialects. The name is thought to be a corruption of the Hindoo Bodh, or “Truth,” due to the imperfect articulation of the Chinese. . . .
  • Fuh-yin. An official holding in Chinese cities a position corresponding to that of mayor in the Occident
  • Kwang-chau-fu. Literally, “The Broad City,”—the name of Canton. It is also called “The City of Genii.”
  • Lí. A measure of distance. The length of the has varied considerably in ancient and in modern times. The present is given by Williams as ten to a league.
  • Ta-chung sz’. Literally, “Temple of the Bell.” The building at Pekin so named covers probably the largest suspended bell in the world, cast in the reign of Yong-lo, about 1406 AD, and weighing upwards of 120,000 pounds.

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The water-clock marks the hour in the Ta-chung sz’,— in the Tower of the Great Bell: now the mallet is lifted to smite the lips of the metal monster, . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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