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The Soul of the Great Bell by Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn may be the most interesting individual I write about this month, and thats including fictional
characters. Born on the Greek island Lefkada to an Irish Sergeant Major and a Greek noblewoman, he was
raised in Dublin. At the age of 19 he moved to Cincinnati where he became a journalist. He moved to New
Orleans in his late 20s, where he spent ten years reporting on local culture, particularly Creole culture and
voodoo religion. In 1890 he moved to Japan, where he apparently found his lifes calling. Interest in Japanese
culture from an appropriative perspective was growing in the Occident and Hearns writings on this culture
filled a vacuum. He became something of an insider to Japanese culture, teaching in Japan, taking on the
name Koizumi Yakumo after marrying Koizumi Setsu and becoming nationalized, and this perspective allowed
him to write about Japanese culture with a perspective uniquely multinational. Interestingly, to this day he is
considered by many to be something of a figure of Japanese nationalism; for a culture normally regarded as
very xenophobic, turn-of-the-century Japan seems to have adopted him wholesale.
This isnt to underplay his skills as a writer; his particular writings became so renowned through his skill at
recording and conveying Japanese culture, treating it with respect without losing the sense of Oriental
otherness that so entertained Western culture. In my reading I have more than once encountered offhand
references to Hearn in other books, making me think that he was something of a household name in the first half
of the century, a sort of cultural emissary of all things Japanese. But not just Japanesehis most well-known
efforts are his recordings of ghost stories. These ghost story recordings have become such a canonical part of
the representation of Japanese folk culture that when Masaki Kobayashi directed his visually-stunning ghost
story anthology in 1965, he named it Kwaidan after Hearns collection of ghost stories, rather than Kaidan, the
more phonetic rendering of the word for ghost story. Its fortunate that Japanese culture so wholesale adopted
him; this avoids the embarrassment of an extranational Brothers Grimm for Japan.
Unfortunately, we arent looking at Hearns Kwaidan, an excellent book that I read last year around this time;
were looking at the much shorter Some Chinese Ghosts. I dont know if Hearn is less comfortable writing
about Chinese culture (full disclosure: Im certainly less comfortable, since Ive been studying Japanese culture
for years, but am nearly totally oblivious about Chinese culture) or he was just off his game when he put this
together, but this collection is significantly less interesting and less inspired. Its very shortonly six tales
and yet manages to be quite repetitive. Gone are fascinating stories like the headless or shapeshifting ghosts
of Kwaidan; the spiritual presence here is subtler in a more boring fashion. Thats not to say its not an
enjoyable book, particularly at its short length, but after Kwaidan its a definite disappointment. So lets look at
the first story of the collection and see what a Chinese ghost story (as Hearn presents it) looks like.
Hearn loves to jump into it with descriptive language that is almost a prose poem, and he does that here:
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, the vast lips inscribed with Buddhist texts from the sacred Fa-hwaKing, from the chapters of the holy Ling-yen-King! Hear the great bell responding!how mighty her voice,
though tongueless!KO-NGAI!
The opening goes on like this for a while. Some people might find this kind of language tedious, but the vigor
really captures me, and I think its easy to see how Hearn enraptured Western audiences with his retellings. He
goes on to describe how the bell rings out Ko-Ngai and Hiai for a page, and only then do we get the
introduction; as is to be expected, this is the story of the great bell in the Ta-chung sz.
Five hundred years ago, an emperor of the Ming dynasty commanded the worthy official Kouan-Yu that he
should have a bell made of such size that the sound thereof might be heard for one hundred li. And he further
ordained that the voice of the bell should be strengthened with brass, and deepened with gold, and sweetened
with silver as well as engravings and locations.
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Kouan-Yu is a skilled and devoted worker, and he does everything as it should be done to produce such a
desired result, but, alas, when the metal had been cast, and the earthen mould separated from the glowing
casting, it was discovered that, despite their great labor and ceaseless care, the result was void of worth; for the
metals had rebelled one against the other. Kouan-Yu tries again, but again the metals obstinately refused to
blend one with the other and this time the Emperor gets pissed and sends a messenger to Kouan-Yu to let him
know he has one more shotor its his head.
Now, Kouan-Yu had a daughter of dazzling loveliness, whose nameKo-Ngaiwas ever in the mouths of
poets, and whose heart was even more beautiful than her face. As you would expect, she finds out about the
message from the Emperor and goes to an astrologer for advice. The astrologer replies, Gold and brass will
never meet in wedlock, silver and iron never embrace, until the flesh of a maiden be melted in the crucible; until
the blood of a virgin be mixed with the metals in their fusion.
So on the day of the third casting is to be done, Ko-Ngai calls out For thy sake, O my Father! and jumps into
the white flood of metal and disappears in the flames. Her father is horrified but there is nothing he can do.
And the serving-woman of Ko-Ngai, dizzy and speechless for pain, stood before the furnace, still holding in
her hands a shoe, a tiny, dainty shoe, with embroidery of pearls and flowers,the shoe of her beautiful mistress
that was. For she had sought to grasp Ko-Ngai by the foot as she leaped, but had only been able to clutch the
shoe, and the pretty shoe came off in her hand; and she continued to stare at it like one gone mad.
I love the details here; whether from the original tale or Hearns retelling I dont know, but it casts the mythical
act of self-sacrifice into a real-world context, where people react in genuine shock and horror at this person who
has just flung herself into molten metal. Yet despite the realistic psychology, there is no realistic melting body;
it has disappeared in the metal, which now seemed purer and whiter than before. The supernatural, with its
mythical logic, encounters the realistic psychology of the characters and they must boy before it; when the
casting is made, it is found that the bell was beautiful to look upon, and perfect in form, and wonderful in color
above all other bells. And the sound the bell rings out is like some vast voice uttering a name, a womans
name,the name of Ko-Ngai!
Yet, between the strokes, there is a long low moaning heard that sounds like Hiai! and all the Chinese
mothers in all the many-colored ways of Pe-king whisper to their little ones: Listen! that is Ko-Ngai crying for
her shoe!
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