From Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings
|Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, original painting by Zhang Xuan (713–755). The only surviving copy was made in ink and color on silk by the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082–1135). Image courtesy of the China Online Museum.|
In 1869, at the age of nineteen, his guardian sent him penniless to the United States, where he eventually became a journalist in Cincinnati and, later, New Orleans. He remained in the United States, with a two-year stint in the West Indies, until 1890, when he emigrated to Japan. During the last fourteen years of his life, he gained fame both in Japan and the West as an interpreter of Japanese culture, and the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, founded in 1933, remains one of the Chūgoku region’s most popular tourist attractions to this day.
Throughout his life Hearn was fascinated by artefacts and legends from all over the world. In 1884, while living in New Orleans, he published Stray Leaves from Strange Literature, a collection of folk tales adapted from Egyptian, Arabic, Polynesian, and other traditions. The following year he wrote “The Legend of Tchi-Niu” for Harper’s Bazaar (or Bazar, as it was then spelled). Over the next two years he completed several other tales and included them in Some Chinese Ghosts. “There are only six little stories,” Hearn wrote to the musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel, to whom he dedicated the book, “but each of them cost months of hard work and study.” Hearn’s preface to the volume notes, “In preparing the legends I sought especially weird beauty,” and an appendix explains that “The Legend of Tchi-Niu” is his own elaboration of a story culled from a single paragraph in a French translation of the Kan-ing-p’ien (“Book of Reward and Punishments”)—then mistakenly attributed to the Lao-tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching.
In 1898, when he was living in Japan, Hearn sent a copy of Some Chinese Ghosts to a friend and presented the book as 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. Should I ever reprint the thing, I would change nothing,—but only preface the new edition with a proper apology.” When the collection was included the recent Library of America collection of Hearn’s American writings, Christopher Benfey offered the following assessment:
Here is Hearn living in New Orleans, with not a jot of direct experience of Asia, confidently reworking Chinese legends. . . . These six precocious tales, a foretaste of Hearn’s later life in Japan, are really about the miracle of artistic invention, which was on Hearn’s mind as he struggled to make the transition from life as a hardworking journalist to that of a novelist and writer of exotic tales he has gathered from a multitude of scholarly sources.
Notes: (with quotes from a glossary prepared by Hearn): On page 30, chih refers to a house, “but especially the house of the dead,—a tomb.” On page 33, the official characters called li-shu belong to an archaic style of calligraphy, “the second of six styles of Chinese writing.”
* * *In the quaint commentary accompanying the text of that holy book of Lao-tseu called Kan-ing-p’ien may be found a little story so old that the name of the one who first told it has been forgotten for a thousand years, yet so beautiful that it lives still in the memory of four hundred millions of people, like a prayer that, once learned, is forever remembered. . . . 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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