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Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002) 263-271

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The Reception of Chinese Culture Reflected in Lafcadio Hearn's Retelling of Chinese Literature

Junko Umemoto

Lafcadio Hearn demonstrates how the Japanese interpret Chinese culture through his works, and his career as an artist plays an important role in this process. Hearn began retelling Chinese supernatural stories in his early days in New Orleans. Once he settled in Japan, he continued to retell various kinds of stories including supernatural ones. Some of those works were Japanese versions of stories of Chinese origin. Strangely enough, Hearn's work helps the Japanese recognize the roots of our own culture. In addition, he affords the Japanese an opportunity to observe the changes the original stories underwent as they entered the Japanese culture. In this article, I shall trace examples of what elements were lost and added in the process of Hearn's retelling of Chinese ghost stories.

For analysis, I have chosen two stories treating romantic love, "The Story of Ming-Y" from Some Chinese Ghosts (1885) and "The Story of Ito Norisuke" from The Romance of the Milky Way (1905). These two stories are representative because romantic love was Hearn's primary concern in his literary discipline, and "love is stronger than death" was his favorite saying. Most important, however, is the fact that Hearn unconsciously immersed himself in Japanese understanding of Chinese literature, and these works demonstrate how the Japanese perceive Chinese stories.

The process of Japanization of Chinese literature is especially apparent when we compare "The Story of Ming-Y" with "The Story of Ito Norisuke." The original Chinese story, which inspired the latter, had been gradually changed under the pens of numerous Japanese story-writers since it was introduced to Japan. Thus, even before Hearn took up the theme, it [End Page 263] already had been Japanized. Nonetheless, the Chinese influence can still be clearly recognized in Hearn's story.

New Orleans was the starting point of Hearn's Far Eastern literary pilgrimage, and it should be remembered that he was destined to undergo this kind of experience when he completed "The Story of Ming-Y" in Louisiana. Hearn became interested in the relationship of ghosts and the people they haunted while still in New Orleans. He had started his journey seeking a theme of love in the supernatural world. "The story of Ming-Y" attracted Hearn probably because he believed in reincarnation, and it is perhaps for this reason that he picked up the theme of love between a mortal and a supernatural being.

Hearn came to shun the narrow artificiality of straight literal translation, and often sought to create his own world in the process of retelling exotic folklore and legends. Consequently, the supernatural elements of folktales proved to be good material for Hearn, who sometimes wished to live in a world of dreams. Later in Japan, his encounters with more mysterious stories in the surrounding environment engaged his active imagination all the more, and his stories became more refined. "The Story of Ito Norisuke" is the very crystallization of his long efforts.

"The story of Ming-Y" is in the old Chinese classic called Kin-Kou Ki-Koan consisting of 40 short stories. Hearn mentions in the notes to Some Chinese Ghosts that "The Story of Ming-Y" was first translated into French under the title "La Bachelière du pays de Chu," by Gustave Schlegel (1877). 1 "The Story of Ito Norisuke" is based on the old Japanese collection of stories Toujitsu Kikan. 2 Though Hearn did not realize that "The Story of Ito Norisuke" is also of Chinese origin, the Japanese version may also have its roots in the Chinese classic called Kin-Kou Ki-Koan.

In "The Story of Ming-Y," a young scholar, employed as a wealthy man's private tutor, gets permission to visit his parents' house in the town. On his way back, he grows drowsy from the scent of blossoms, strays onto an unknown path, and comes across an unworldly beauty, a ghost of Sië-Thao...


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