Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio: Volume One was the ten thousandth free audiobook recorded by Librivox.
One of the reasons I’m fascinated with Chinese folktales is that towards the end of the Ars Magica setting. we started to run out of things that people hadn’t seen before and so to cheat we would harvest other peoples’ folktales and add them into the European setting. For example there is a Japanese spirit, a sort of faceless person, that I stole for Antagonists. I first became aware of Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio a couple of years ago and I deliberately decided not to read it, because it had too much good material and I was busy working through other research for what became the North African and Egyptian books.
Chinese Studio is a series of short folk tales. The person who’s telling them appears to believe that they are the truth, which means that sometimes they end abruptly in the same way that, sometimes, when you read biographies the person is heroic up until a certain point and then the life just seems to taper away. In these stories something amusing or amazing happens and then that’s it. Done. The stories have also, in this edition, been bolderised within an inch of their lives. I’m not saying that Giles, who did the translation, was incredibly sex averse, but he was a Victorian gentleman writing for other Victorian gentlemen and he used a vast degree of inventiveness to remove anything vaguely erotic from the stories. Many of the stories deal with people who have fairy or fox wives, because this is a Chinese studio, but let’s ignore those that now.
One of the early stories, and one of my favourites, involves a man who goes blind because a film forms over the pupil of each of his eyes. Trapped as he is in darkness, he starts hearing voices and the presumes he is going insane. It becomes clear to him that talking creatures are living inside his eyeballs and they have become disconsolate because they haven’t seen the sunlight in a while. They crawl out of his nose and go on an adventure. They then climb back up his nose, and talk to each other about how the man’s garden has been neglected since he’s gone blind. When he confronts his wife about this, her reaction confirms to him that these are not symptoms of madness. Actual spiritual beings have taken up residence in his head.
After many nights of this one of the creatures becomes sick of all this climbing up noses and decides to create a door, It tries to split open the film in the front of the eye. It fails to do this but it encourages the other creature to try. It manages to break open the film in the front of they eye, allowing the man to see again.
The two creatures in his eyes have a discussion. The one from the blind eye agrees to come and live with the other, leading to another quick trip down one nostril and up the other. From that day the man had two pupils in his right eye, which allowed him to see more clearly than any other man despite being blinded in his left.
It’s not clear what the game effects of having these speaking creatures in your eyes are. An awesome knack involving the Awareness ability? If they are faeries, he might gain certain short term skills, or the premonitions Virtue, due to his eyes discussing things which are invisible to him.
It’s not clear whether this is meant to be a horror story. Are you meant to think “Wait a minute! I have pupils! Are people in everyone’s pupils? Tiny men sitting behind windows?” Giles the translator claims that: yes! This is exactly what you meant to think. He believes all Chinese people believe that there are little human-shaped figures in the back of their eyeballs, a superstition which is caused by seeing your own reflection, reflected off of a mirror into your eyeballs, then back on to the mirror.
Ancient Chinese body horror? Hard to tell.
Another story I particularly like is about an elderly woman who has one son, and this son is taken by tiger. A passing monk rebukes the tiger/ “Just how is this woman to live now that you’ve eaten her son? This is entirely inappropriate behavior.” The tiger adopts the woman and starts leaving dead deer on her porch. Each day another deer. Eventually the woman starts to feel more friendly toward the tiger and she coaxes it to sleep on her veranda. The woman is quite rich by this time, because a deer each day is quite something when you live in medieval China, and no one wants to burgle her house because there’s literally a tiger lying across the doorway. Eventually she and the tiger become such great friends that it wanders around carrying things for her, to get her shopping: those sorts of things. Eventually the widow dies, the tiger bursts into her house, and mourns her death.
I quite like this idea that a saint has accidentally put an incredibly dangerous creature into the middle of the town. It does nothing particularly scary, except camp out on the veranda of an old woman. I wonder how this would play in Mythic Europe where poaching deer is illegal. Elderly women who had suspicious seeming cats were sometimes accused of being witches…
…well actually that’s after our period/ In 1220 people didn’t believe that witches really existed. They believed people who thought they were witches were mentally ill…
but leaving that aside: what can you do if a saint has accidentally handed a woman a tiger, or perhaps in Mythic Europe, a great wolf. You could just wait and after she passes away, then you have a mystical tiger available. You could adopt it as a familiar. You could see if there is something particular to the woman. Perhaps she has the virtue that makes animals particularly friendly. If so she may prove a resource when dealing with similar creatures, particularly given the way that most animals react to magi.
There is a story in which a character asks for his fortune to be told. The magician in the marketplace says “You’re going to die very quickly that I can prevent it from happening with one of my charms.” The person refuses the assistance of the necromancer, so the necromancer sends spirits to kill the man. The necromancer wants to maintain his reputation. for seeing the future.
Of particular interest to have magi is the story of a tiger spirit which only attacks scholars. It seems to eat at least one every year. The spirit of the scholar most recently killed is forced to serve the tiger until a new scholar dies. In the story the ghost of one of the scholars contacts a friend, and gets him to trick a teacher, whom they both disliked, into coming to the mountain of the tiger.
When I saw this I was reminded of the tradition found in British folk tales of what’s called a fag corpse, fag, in this sense, meaning “servant”. The idea is that the ghost of the last person buried in the graveyard becomes the servant of the other ghosts while there. Rich people would make very sure that directly after the funeral of their relative was a second funeral, preferably of a peasant. That meant the realtive of the rich people would only have to serve the wishes of the poor people nearby for a matter of moments.
There is also mention of a poisonous plant. Whoever eats this plant dies and becomes a ghost: their final business being that they cannot rest until they have poisoned someone else using the plant. One of the poison victims, a gentleman of strong moral character, chooses not to poison anyone else. He continues his worldly works and supports his mother, until eventually the various immortals notice what he’s doing. He is given a role in the celestial bureaucracy, and takes the curse with him when he passes from the world. This reminded me of the oldest of the ghosts at the Cave of Twisting Shadows. In Sanctuary of Ice, there is mention of a woman who poisoned herself, her worldly business being to wait for the return of Criamon.
In another story there is a magic rock, which has many tiny grottoes. Each year, one grotto closes. The person who owns the rock can tell how long they’re going to live. There are certain dryads linked not to trees but individual flowers. There are western magicians who are able to stretch and extend their limbs in a way that reminded me of Mr Tickle and Mr Fantastic.
There is mention of the nation of flying heads. In this kingdom people’s heads fly off and go down to the marshy lands to eat worms, and it’s considered completely normal by the people who live there. There are similar magicians in Hungry they can sever parts of the bodies and send them off travelling, but none of them actually has a flying head.
There is the story of a man who was swept out to sea, and lands on the island of the cannibals. He manages to avoid being eaten by showing them how to cook meat and eventually, to keep him happy, they give him a troglodyte wife. They have two sons and he eventually escapes to the mainland. His children have magic blood and they rise high in the army. His wife is absolutely hideous, so she refuses to go to China until it becomes clear that her sons have become generals and her husband a high official. Regardless of her hideous visage, everyone around her husband is required to treat her as though she were attractive. This does not so far as I can tell actually make her attractive, although that would be an interesting outcome to the folk story.
Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio is an interesting grab bag of material from which you can steal a great deal of campaign material. In this broadcast, I’ve covered the first volume of the book. I believe it’s 5 volumes long.