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Friday, April 23, 2010

An Unsavory Room

Closest cracked moon I could find.

As the Imperial Exams1 drew near, candidates all over the empire began to congregate in the capital. The rooming situation became so bad that even complete strangers had to share rooms. One candidate arrived late and found himself in an impossible situation. He begged to be allowed to spend the night in the barn. Even this was not possible as they were fully filled with horses and mules belonging to the lodgers.

At last the exasperated candidate pestered one innkeeper so much that he was finally told that there is always an empty room at this certain inn because of its unsavory condition. The scholar replied that it is better to have room and shelter than be drenched in the impending rain. However he warned the innkeeper that he would have a taste of his sword2 if this was a ploy to be rid of him.

When the scholar arrived at the said inn, once more he was told that there was no room available. The scholar was aghast and angrily demanded,

“Is there or is there not an empty room in your establishment? Mr. so and so from a few streets up said you always have an empty room!”

A bemused innkeeper laughing out aloud,

“Yes and no!”

“Now what kind of answer is that!”

“When you first you asked if there was any available room, I honestly told you there was none. All rental rooms are occupied; but now you asked me if there was an empty room… Why, that’s a different story. Indeed I have such a place.

“What kind of shell game you are playing with me! I see no difference at all.”

“Certainly there is! That empty room is not meant for rental. It had remained so for several years due to its unsavory condition. We locals avoid talking about it.”

“I don’t care if it is unsavory or not! Just give me that room. I am tired and in no mood for such semantic games!”

“Sir, you simply don’t understand… I’m just trying to be oblique. If you must know, I'll be frank with you... You see, the room is haunted! At the beat of the 3rd watch, a ghost will appear and those who stayed were all frightened out of their wits. I almost got sued for renting out that room, not to mention that each time I was rudely jolted from my sleep. This old man needs his sleep!”

The scholar did not know what to believe but after a moment’s reflection, he replied,

“I will have that room regardless of the state it is in. I have done nothing wrong in my life, why should I be afraid of a mere ghost. As an upright gentleman, I’m sure it will be more frightened of me3! Besides I have my trusty sword here with me.”

“Hmmh! It is free if you wish to spend the night there. Just don’t run screaming to me in the middle of the night! You have been warned.”

With that the scholar was shown to the room. The room was very dusty but livable, otherwise it just looked like any other ordinary room.

“I rather spend the night with the ghost in the room rather than be drenched in the cold night rain!” grumbled the scholar.

Very soon the candle was blown out and the scholar retired to bed. The rains came and kept him awake. Finally it stopped and the scholar was able to doze off. However peaceful sleep was not in the cards as he was soon rudely awakened by soft groaning and moaning. As the sounds grew louder, the scholar became more irritated. He peeked out of the bed and was getting ready to slice up whoever the practical joker may be out there. Peering into the darkness and with the help of the moonlight beaming through a nearby window, he was able to discern a white translucent wraith-like apparition forming in the room. The temperature seemed to drop several degrees. Soon it coalesced into a shape of a young man. Tingles crept up the scholar’s spine. The apparition did not move or pay attention to anyone or anything. It just stood with its back facing the scholar and staring at a blank wall. Its wailing was like a chant of some sort; peppering the rhythm with sorrowful sighs. An hour or so, the apparition turned around and began to pace the room, walking towards our hero who abruptly fainted right in the bed, still holding his sword.

The next day the innkeeper woke up to a beautiful morning. He was glad to have a peaceful night with no screaming guest. Suddenly his smugness left him and grew gravely concerned… But, of course the guest is dead in the room! Must have been frightened to death by the ghost! Otherwise how could there be no screaming in the night! And with that horrible thought, he took off to the haunted room like one being chased by creditors. As he approached the place, there was no sign of life. Greatly alarmed, regretting his decision of last night,

“This is bad for business. Tons of trouble from the authorities now! What a tottering old fool I am! This is what you get for teaching that pestering fool a lesson! Woe is me! Woe is me!”

Hurriedly he ran into the room, breaking the door down in the process. He saw a still body lying in the bed. By now the innkeeper had become very fearful of the way events being unfolded before his eyes. Straight away he rushed to the bed and just as he was about to place his hands on the body…
The scholar suddenly sprang up in a defensive posture; brandishing his sword menacingly, startling the innkeeper to no end.

“What’s the meaning of this!” demanded the scholar.

“What the hell are you doing with that weapon! Are you trying to kill me?”

“What? You broke down the door and rushing in like some black inn brigand4!”

“Hold your tongue! If I’m one, it would be done in the darkness of the night and not in broad daylight. I just came to check and see if you were dead!”


“Didn’t the ghost appear last night?”

“Oh indeed it had. With its groaning and moaning, I could hardly get a wink or two. And now that I am peacefully asleep, I am being frightened to death by you instead!”

“Weren’t you a bit least frightened by that ghost?”

“Hah! As I had told you before, being an upright person, I am not frightened by such mere apparition!” Our scholar said, lying through his teeth.

The innkeeper was more impressed by the words than by that gleaming sword. Soon both calmed down and were greatly relieved.

“What I don’t understand is why does the ghost keep muttering to itself the entire night?”

 “Oh, it is a long story and quite sad too. You see, a few years back, a scholar not much older than yourself came to lodge at that very room for the Imperial Exams. Really quite a likeable fellow. But something must have happened during the first night. He began muttering to himself the very next day. When the Exams began, he did not leave. He spends all his time mumbling to himself in the room.”
“After a few weeks or so, everyone was getting worried and was alarmed at his odd behaviour. At first all of us thought that he must have been possessed by some fox fairy5. We spied on him on several occasions but found no such nightly visitation. All he did was to pace up and down the room, muttering away to himself. As rent was paid, I can do nothing. Didn’t bother anyone at all but just kept to himself with his strange behaviour. Soon afterwards he fell sick and within the year or so his health deteriorated so much that a doctor was called in. That poor boy, even in his illness, he could not stop muttering in nonsense. Didn’t even have the heart to throw him out when his funds dried up! Not too soon afterwards he passed away. Such tragedy. Really pitiful and so out of kindness, I paid for his funeral expenses and had the poor chap buried5. Exactly 49 days 6later, he started to haunt the room. Since then no one dared go in even in the day. You are the first to spend the entire night with no trace of fear. Indeed, you are truly an upright person you claimed to be. By the way, did you figure out his ramblings?”

“No I didn’t. Not a single word uttered. As in life, the ghost is as deranged as ever. Hmmm… Wait a minute! Let’s go and find out!”


“During the entire haunting, he kept staring at the north wall of the room... There must be some reason for it.”

Like zombies they walked to the wall, looking for clues. Finally when they reached the wall, they espied a tiny column of graffiti. Apparently the work of some rascal. On it was the following characters,

The lattice window fracturing the moon.

Obviously a challenge meant for subsequent literate lodgers. Looking hard at the phrase for a few moments, a smile lit up on the scholar’s face and said to the innkeeper,

“Dear uncle8, what would you do if I rid you of the ghost?”

“Eh? What’s that you say?… Really? if I am not mistaken then I will be forever in your gratitude!”

“I don’t need your eternal gratitude! Just free food and lodging until the Imperial Exams are over!”

“Hah! Not even those Taoist priests and Buddhist monks could exorcise the apparition! If you can do that, not only will there be free food and lodging but a nightly pot of wine as well!”

“You won’t go back on your words?”

“Sir, even though I’m not from the genteel class, The one thing I have is integrity! You gravely insult me Sir!”

“By tomorrow your ghost will be gone forever. So let me go back to my sleep now!”

“Yes milord! I shall let no one disturb you. When you are awake, food shall be brought to you personally by me!”

Already, a gleeful innkeeper was thinking of the future money made from that room once more. After a good meal, in the following evening, the scholar read his books and went to bed at his usual hour. Right on the dot, at the appointed beat of the 3rd watch, sounds of groaning and moaning were heard once more. The apparition appeared and formed at the usual spot. Our hero was more than ready this time.

“Will you stop groaning and moaning! You are making such a ruckus! Loud enough to wake the dead! If you want to say something, then at least enunciate the words properly so that I can hear what you are babbling about. You are shaming our class and station with your pathetic eloquence!”

The apparition was taken quite aback as no one had so rudely addressing at him in his present state. It turned around to face the speaker. It had a sad but winsome looking face of a young man, barely older than the scholar. Apparently the scholar's words of shame had some effect on him. The mouth gaped open and began to recite clearly in a hollowed out voice,

“花窗攕碎月…花窗攕碎月…”The lattice window fracturing the moon…The lattice fracturing the moon…”

“Oh ho! Just as I suspected… You couldn’t complete the couplet and died in regret – thinking if you can’t complete such a lowly piece of literary junk, how could you expect to pass the lofty Imperial Exams?”

“Eh? Answer me! Am I right or wrong?”

For once, the ghost stopped muttering and stood in silence, patiently staring at the scholar, as if awaiting true words from Buddha himself. The scholar sighed and said,

“I really don’t know if I should take pity on you or be ashamed of your lack of learning. I guess I have no choice! if I let you go on haunting forever, nary a good night’s sleep I'd get with all that noise you’re making. So for my sake and yours, here’s a rather simple matching end to your couplet. Be gone and leave me in peace!”

When the ghost heard the words, he looked stunned and astonished. He began repeating the matching line a few more times. Then for a fleeting moment, a smile broke out on its face but sadness soon returned. Shaking his head as if to acknowledge his lack of literary savvy… Finally, with a sigh, the ghost bowed to the scholar in acknowledgment and began to fade away in contentment.

The next morning, the innkeeper came knocking on the room gently. Our smug scholar was in a much happier mood having a good night’s sleep and a job well done.
“The ghost will never haunt your establishment anymore. It has been put to rest!”

“What did you do?” exclaimed the innkeeper with a not too sure a look on his face.

“If you don’t believe it, just go to the north wall and see.”

The innkeeper went and looked at the wall. Five more characters were added to the left of the original column9.

“You scholars are always such a tease and show off. You know I can’t read, let alone know what’s going on!”

The scholar explained the whole story but was surprised when the innkeeper got up in silence, deep in thought and went outside. Soon he came back and straight away went to the wall and began berating,

“Oh no you don’t! All these years of nothing but trouble and grief to me. No more trouble! No more grief! One practical joke and one innocent life lost! I shall put an end to this nonsense once and for all. You scholarly braggarts!”
With that, the innkeeper took out a wet cloth and wiped out all the writing on the wall.

And that’s the end of the story my dear friends.

What? That's the end of the story? I’m sure you all are asking the same question – Where's that damn answer? Don’t worry, I’m not that rascal in the story turning my friends into obsessive apparitions. This is just to let some of you be the hero of the story and try your hand at completing the couplet. One possible answer appears at the end of the notes.

This story was told by my maternal grandmother when I was a child. She was an illiterate woman. She was especially proud in recounting stories with literary values. In those days, I was more intrigued by the eerie circumstances and excitement than the story’s couplet. However as I grew older, I began to appreciate the couplet more than the story itself. I believe this is a Cantonese story because the matching end of the couplet contains colloquial Cantonese terms that a Mandarin speaker may not understand.
1. For more info see,,

2. Not all scholars are bookworms. Some are well versed in the martial arts (文武雙全) too but they are a rare breed.

3: Old Cantonese saying, 人怕鬼三分, 鬼怕人七分 (man is afraid of ghosts by 30%, ghost is scared of man by 70%). The logic being the emanating Yang Chi (陽氣) of an upright person will dispel the Yin Chi (陰氣) of a ghost)

4. Unlike the safe and sound hospitality industry of today, in old China or anywhere else for the matter, travelers are skittish about places they stayed for the fear of being robbed and killed. Such places are termed in Chinese as “black inns”(黑店).

5. A euphemistic term for a fox demon (狐狸精). It is believed that foxes turned themselves into beautiful women to seduce young men for their Yang vitality to nourish their own Yin counterpart. Has the same connotation as the word “vixen”.

6. It was considered an extremely virtuous deed in helping to bury the dead, in old China. More meritorious if the dead could be brought back to its hometown for burial.

7. It is believed that the lower soul (魄) would return to see its corpse and bid farewell to the family for the last time after 49 days (七七四十九日). The superior soul (魂) had long departed to heaven etc the moment the person died.

8. A polite term for an elderly person. In this case the scholar is ingratiating himself to the innkeeper.

9. Traditional Chinese is written from top to bottom, from left to right. When vertical writing is not possible, it is written from left to right. The modern style used in mainland China is from right to left.

The moment has arrived…

花窗攕碎月 The lattice window fracturing the moon.
曲行抝攣風 The crooked lane warping the wind.

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