The Nakhi, like many other people still unaffected by the materialistic Western civilization, lived in close and intimate contact with the world of spirits. They believed that the immensity of space was inhabited by big and small deities, spirits of the dead and a host of nature’s spirits both good and bad. The relationship between mankind and these many spirits was not considered hypothetical or conjectural but factual and authentic. Psychic phenomena neither surprised nor alarmed them unless they were of a disagreeable nature. Unlike the taboo imposed by religion in the West on communication with spirits, no such restrictions existed in Likiang and the communications themselves were looked upon as the normal and eminently practical means of solving certain intricate problems of life when other methods had failed. If there was an apparition, materialization or direct voice, people did not shrink from it but investigated the matter with sympathy and interest. In a word, a visitor from the unseen was treated as a person, with proper courtesy.
It was firmly believed that the dead survived. They did not live somewhere in the blue sky beyond the clouds but existed somewhere near, just on the other side of the veil. The veil could be lifted or, at least, a hole could be made in it for a short talk with the dear departed. It was not considered necessary or desirable to bother them too much for two reasons. One was that they had already accustomed themselves to their new existence and that it was a bad thing to remind them too much of earthly affairs and thereby induce them to become earthbound. The second reason was that if it should ever be demonstrated that the life beyond is as happy and felicitous as it is pictured in Nakhi scriptures, there would be the temptation to end it all and to migrate to a happier plane of existence in a hurry. As it was, the suicides in Likiang were too frequent and easy, and such revelations might cause a stampede, bringing the whole Nakhi race to a. premature end.
The dead, therefore, could only be approached in time of a severe crisis in the family when, for example, someone was dangerously ill, with all hope in drugs abandoned. Then a professional medium, called sanyi, was summoned and his visit was always arranged in the dead of night, when the neighbours were asleep. He chanted the incantations from the scriptures, accompanying himself on a small drum. He danced a little. Then he fell into a trance. There was no direct voice. The man gasped out what he saw. It might, for instance, be a tall old man in a purple jacket, slightly lame, leaning on a black stick. ‘Oh, that is Grandfather!’ cried the family, prostrating themselves. Then the sickness of the patient was described. ‘The old man is smiling,’ reported the sanyi. ‘He says the boy will recover in seven days if he takes this medicine.’ There followed a slow dictation of what to take and when to take it. The family prostrated themselves again as the old man was reported to be going away. On the other hand, the old man might have said that the case was hopeless and that the boy would be with him in three days.
People always said that such prescriptions or prophecies were infallible: either the patient recovered with the aid of the prescribed medicine or he was dead on the day and hour announced by his departed ancestor. Moreover, murderers could be brought to justice through interviews with their dead victims and certain family affairs cleared up. Conversations with the dead in dreams were a frequent occurrence in Likiang and were given much credence.
As I have already explained, the dtombas controlled a vast realm of malignant and destructive demons, who plagued mankind with their malicious interference. They ensconced themselves in the households, where disharmony occurred, and tugged telepathically at the disordered thoughts of the miserable or the depressed, inciting in them the ideas of revenge, murder or suicide. These demons are pictured in the Nakhi sacred manuscripts as being with a human head, of a repulsive appearance, and a snake body. The dtombas claim that these snake-like creatures can be seen by men subjectively under the effect of prolonged drink or in insanity. This is rather in accord with the Western conception of the visions during delirium tremens. The whole idea of the dtomba ceremonial dances is to induce these malignant creatures, once they had invaded the house, to come out, so to speak, into the open. Then they are ceremoniously feasted, exorcised and conjured never to return.
The deities are in a class by themselves and cannot be coerced or commanded. To these belong the powerful Nagaraja clans. The Nagarajas are the heroic spirits of great Nagas or serpents, and it is clear that they can be identified with the biblical seraphim who were the angels with snake bodies. Like the seraphim, all Nagarajas possess beautiful human faces and can manifest themselves in an entire human form. Many women fall in love with these handsome denizens of the spirit world and bear, as a result of the union, specially gifted and good-looking children. The Nagarajas are propitiated with milk and dainties at special ceremonies. They are always treated with particular courtesies. The Nagaraja cult is not confined to Likiang but is very popular in Burma and Siam. Nagas were worshipped in ancient Angkor Thorn also and the Naga motif is still predominant in temple decorations in Indo-China and Siam. In China the cult survives as the worship and reverence of the Dragon — the clawed Naga — which rules oceans, rivers and mountains. One of the objects of Fengshui in China is to determine the sites of houses and tombs so as to conform to the Dragon’s disposition and will.
It is believed that the Nagarajas sometimes live on the material plane incarnated, of course, in a snake form. One of them lived close to my Iron Mining Co-operative, and near the village which was on a hill covered with sparse woods. The deity stayed in a small cave and milk and eggs were placed at a respectful distance from the opening. Not satisfied by these willing sacrifices, the Naga emerged from time to time to swallow a chicken or young pig, thus becoming rather an expensive visitor. I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of it one evening. It was a huge king cobra, old and venerable, and its upraised head, I had time to notice, had a comb like a cock’s. We quickly moved away as king cobras can run with the speed of a galloping horse, and if bitten we would have died within half an hour.
In addition to the spirits of the dead, malevolent demons and Nagarajas, Likiang was a veritable playground for siao-shent^e, which in the West are usually termed poltergeists. I liked the Chinese version, which means ‘little spirits’ or, by extension, ‘little gods’. It is now freely recognized in the West by those interested in psychical research that such psychic phenomena are almost commonplace among people who believe in them. It seems that these unseen intelligences prefer to manifest themselves in a congenial atmosphere created by the impressionable acceptance of simple people who live in close communion with nature. In Europe and America, even in China, these poltergeistic manifestations are considered as an inexplicable nuisance. Many people believe, of course, that they are devil’s tricks to subvert the faithful, and when these unusual performances start, many shrink in pious horror and rush to have them exorcised.
The Nakhi people, whilst not welcoming such manifestations of the unseen forces, were nevertheless very levelheaded and practical when they occurred. They believed implicitly that the phenomena were originated and directed by intelligent spirit-beings — not the spirits of the ancestors but creatures of an order either below or above the human level. The accepted opinion was that the displacement of objects, rapping and other phenomena were not purposeless acts to frighten or annoy the occupants of a house, but were designed by the intelligences to attract attention as, evidently they had no other means of making themselves known. The purpose of this interference in the human sphere was, clearly, to communicate something to the family, or, perhaps, issue a warning about some impending misfortune which might be forestalled. Thus, instead of cursing or insulting the unseen intruders or shrinking from them, people addressed them courteously and tried to find out, by a timely seance, what the matter was.
The most celebrated case of persistent poltergeistic phenomena in Likiang, was the Lai family’s old house in one of the principal streets near Madame Lee’s wine-shop. The family was considered to be the richest in town, but it was agreed that their vast fortune seemed to have originated soon after the phenomena had started. It was a curious case and it is related by Fitzgerald in his book The Tower of Five Glories. I went to the house a few days after my arrival in Likiang and saw where the roof had been broken through in many places by the huge boulders which still lay on the floor as they had fallen. The walls were deeply scarred by the tongues of a flame which had appeared from nowhere. The place was utterly uninhabitable. A few years later it was pulled down.
This was the story, as related to me by friends. The Lais had been a moderately well-to-do family and they had only enough money to build that modest one-storey house. One evening, as Mr Lai was lying on his couch smoking opium, he noticed a strange disappearance and reappearance of objects. Turning over on the bed to relight his pipe, he saw, to his intense surprise, that the little lamp was gone. Laying his pipe on the table, he got up to investigate. Turning round, he saw the lamp in its old place but this time the pipe was not there. Day after day these curious happenings increased. Friends came to watch in fascinated amazement as dishes were carried by invisible hands from one table to another; playing-cards scattered over the bed; bottles of wine and cups moved round and many other acts, some of them highly comical, were performed. There was no hint of anything unpleasant or destructive. Finally, Mr Lai decided to arrange a seance at which it was discovered that there were two ‘little spirits’ in action and that both, so they said, were females. They declared that their purpose in molesting Mr Lai and his family was to demand that Mr Lai should rebuild the famous iron chain bridge over the Yangtze at Tzelichiang, some eighty li from Likiang on the busy Likiang—Yuenpei caravan route. This hanging bridge, about 150 feet long, had been built long ago by a pair of lovers, who had escaped from the fury of pursuing parents, and who, with great difficulty and only just in time, had crossed the raging river by boat to safety. In gratitude for their almost miraculous escape from two mortal dangers and in fulfilment of a vow they built the bridge. With the passage of time the eighteen chains, anchored to the huge boulders on each side of the gorge, where deep down the great river boiled, became loosened and worn out and liable to break at any time.
Mr Lai, during the fateful seance, retorted that it was easier said than done to undertake such a work, and that he was not a rich man. Why did the spirit ladies not go to somebody else with such a request? They replied that they came to him because they knew him to be a man of drive and purpose; as for finance, they would see what could be done.
Ever since that day the Lai family began to prosper exceedingly. In no time at all they became the richest merchants in Likiang. No one knows exactly how, but some people averred that the little spirits brought or materialized gold and silver ingots into Mr Lai’s room. Others thought it was opium, which was even better for trade than gold. A few conjectured that perhaps some vital trade secrets had been disclosed to the family by those omniscient spirits. One thing is certain — the spirits were always present in the house and continued to amuse the merchant and his friends with their clever and good-natured pranks. Then the day of reckoning arrived when the ‘little sisters’ declared that since Mr Lai was now a very rich man, the time had come to begin work on the bridge. But as always happens, when a man is becoming rich, his appetite grows with eating. Mr Lai dolefully protested that he was still a poor man and must accumulate more funds before he could undertake so expensive a job. ‘Now or never!’ cried the two infuriated spirits through the medium. In a flash, they changed from being charming angels into intractable, avenging demons. The pleasant and luxuriously furnished house was turned into an abode of desolation and fear. Tongues of flame licked the walls at unexpected places and times. Boulders crashed now and then in the very midst of the drawing-room. Pebbles were thrown into the food dishes and crockery was smashed. This continued for many weeks. Poor Mr Lai did not know what to do. His name became associated with bad luck in town and people were afraid to pass his house at night. All sorts of conjurations and exorcisms were resorted to, but without avail.
Fitzgerald describes in his book how a Chinese colonel visited the house, armed with two pistols and surrounded by his soldiers. ‘I am not afraid of you, you rogues!’ the colonel shouted, brandishing his pistols and entering the drawing-room. Before he had finished his tirade, a round stone, as big as a fist, hit him on the head and he had to be rushed away for treatment. A missionary, whom I met afterwards, boldly entered the house carrying a cross and the Bible. ‘Where Christ is,’ he shouted, ‘no evil spirits may abide!’ A huge boulder crashed right by his feet and he rushed out in a panic.
With a heavy heart, grieving over the ruination of his house and the heavy outlay of capital, Mr Lai had the bridge reconstructed. But the destructive manifestations did not abate. Another protracted seance was arranged in the presence of a local Buddhist priest. The ‘little spirits’ declared that they were disgusted with Mr Lai’s avarice and wanted to continue punishing him. However, they yielded to the priest’s entreaties and a compact was made by which Mr Lai would build a small shrine by the bridge; there was to be an attendant priest, and a daily offering of rice, wheat, wine and other edibles to be made in perpetuity. Mr Lai carried out the agreement to the letter and then, with a great ceremony, the ‘little spirit ladies’ were escorted to their new dwelling. The manifestations ceased and later on the old house was demolished and a new one built in its place.
I have never been seriously interested in communications with the dead: but poltergeists have always attracted me and I have devoted more than thirty years of my life to their observation and research whenever possible. I had long ago persuaded myself that these phenomena do occur and that poltergeists do really exist. In China, whilst staying for long periods at certain Taoistic monasteries, I had the opportunity of observing a number of interesting psychic phenomena but did not take part in them. I was particularly impressed by the long and difficult ceremony of exorcising an energumen at a Taoist monastery near Soochow. It was a most horrible proceeding.
My observations of the phenomena, in which the ‘little spirits’, or so-called poltergeists, participated, left me with a firm conviction that they had nothing to do with the spirits of the departed. They were not really human at all and even their intelligence did not conceal their lack of many characteristics we usually associate with men. For one thing, they did not possess love: they were joyous and they could be friendly, but that was about all. They could be easily pleased and just as easily displeased. In their nature, they were either malignant or benignant, and St Paul’s warning to ‘try the spirits whether they be good or evil’, before dealing with them, was very much to the point. I found out from practice that levity, frivolity, scepticism and conscious fraud during a seance attracted malignant spirits, but that a warm, friendly atmosphere generally led to contacts with benignant entities. A short prayer generally repelled bad influences. Laughter could interrupt a seance for good.
Armed with this knowledge, little as it was, I arrived in Likiang to find it a haven for anyone interested in psychical research. And the years spent in Likiang led me to experiences and experiments which showed that most of the poltergeists could be dealt with by carefully arranged contact through a seance with the spirit agencies involved; that seances could lead to poltergeistic phenomena without any reference to the spirits of the dead, and that the disturbances were not aimless and irrational but had a definite purpose in view. Indeed, if poltergeistic manifestations were aimless and senseless, then there would be more of them since they would require neither rhyme nor reason.
On the whole, the ‘little spirits’ do not seem interested in human affairs and they undertake their appearance only in special cases when certain specific interests of theirs seem to be involved. Ties of friendship and kindness seem to have an effect on them, and perhaps the concern of the two female spirits in the reconstruction of the bridge across the Yangtze was due to their past friendship with the adventurous lovers.
Another case concerned the hill which extended, at the back of our house, towards Double Stone Bridge. They repeatedly enjoined the people, through manifestations and seances, not to disfigure it by quarrying. But it was an easy and desirable place to obtain stone and the gangs of Minkia stone-cutters always tried to nibble at it. One gang started quarrying at the back of the hill. Within a week big boulders were thrown at them and a man’s foot was crushed. Then they moved to a place near Double Stone Bridge on the road’ from my house to Madame Ho’s wine-shop. They put up low shacks by the roadside and were cutting stone for a week or two without accidents. Then the warning came: pebbles were put in their wine-cups and stones thrown into their cooking pots. These Minkia were a cheerful, friendly lot, always singing and joking, and I used to stop to chat and drink with them when passing. I was delighted when they began telling me about the phenomena. One evening I was asked in, took the proffered bowl of wine and waited, sitting together with them around the fire. I watched my cup attentively and noted that nobody was very close to me. Bringing it to my lips I saw a round pebble in it. Then a hat from the man opposite was placed on my head. Within a few moments all the hats were exchanged by invisible hands, and other pebbles followed into our cups. But no one could spot the very act of the placing of the pebbles into cups or the changing of the hats. Then stones were gently thrown round our feet.
This continued for several days. Afterwards heavy boulders were thrown into the shacks, breaking the pots. At last a falling rock smashed somebody’s foot. Next day the Minkia had a secret seance and were told to get out as fast as they could or grievous things would happen to them. So the quarry was abandoned and only a small cave under the overhanging cliff showed where they had worked.
About a month or two afterwards I was passing the place in the evening. Some poor Tibetan pilgrims were preparing to pass the night in the cave. A woman and a child were sitting inside, the man was feeding a mule tied to a post by the cave. A sacred sheep munched grass by the roadside. Sheep are usually taken on a pilgrimage on which they carry a small load of provisions tied to a miniature saddle. They acquire merit from the long tramp to holy peaks and shrines and are never killed afterwards.
Early next morning I received the news of a terrible disaster and rushed to the cave. The whole hillside had crashed down on the family and the mule. Only the sheep continued to munch its grass unconcernedly by the roadside. Tons of rock and earth had buried them completely. People dug there for weeks without uncovering the bodies and, finally, the work was abandoned.