In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • A Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China by Robert Ford Campany
  • Micheline M. Soong (bio)
A Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China. By Robert Ford Campany, University of Hawaii Press, 2015, 164 pp.

For the intended audience of Robert Ford Campany’s A Garden of Marvels, “primarily … undergraduate students and other curious non-specialist readers” (xix), this question will come up: What could I possibly have in common with long-dead people from this far-removed civilization and culture that I may know nothing about? The unexpected answer is: surprisingly, a lot.

Delving into this text in early 2021, a little more than a year into the surreal widespread loss of loved ones and extreme isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, is both a guilty pleasure and profoundly revelatory. Campany’s compilation of his own translations of 225 zhiguai志怪, “accounts of anomalies” (i.e., narratives that feature experiences of the strange, uncanny, or inexplicable), provides a rare portal through which the reader can be transported, immersed within texts bounded by the late Eastern Han Dynasty (220 CE) to the Tang Dynasty (618 CE)—a “stunningly rich body of social memory”(xl) that provides “insight into Chinese beliefs and practices especially at the popular level” (xxxix)—and discover between the world of medieval China and the reader’s present reality a shared enduring fascination with the membranous permeability that separates the realms of the living from the dead and incorporeal.

The category of zhiguai (accounts of the strange) texts is diverse, encompassing a wide variety of anecdotes, historical records, memoirs, letters, temple inscriptions, and biographies, among others, that recount encounters [End Page 375] with sacred, ordinary, and apotropaic objects, shapeshifting animals, ghosts, demons, local gods, and numinous beings such as Daoist transcendents or the Buddha, Buddhist practitioners, deities and supernatural creatures; visits to otherworldly places such as the court of judgment in the afterlife, hidden villages of immortals or enlightened beings à la James Hilton’s Shangri-la or the Tibetan mythical kingdom of Shambhala, or even heaven or hell; and unaccountable phenomena such as bizarre dreams, premonitions, and miraculous occurrences, including surviving entombment and the return from death (xxviii).

These brief accounts curated by Campany, a single paragraph to a few pages, with the protagonists’ name, place of origin, rank, occupation or affiliation, and a brief description of the event, gradually depict for the reader a Chinese conceptualization of the cosmos that includes an intricate tapestry of the complex relationship that humans have to the invisible world. There is an implicit symmetry in the structural organization in both the physical and spirit worlds, as subofficials, functionaries, magistrates, etc., mirroring their human counterparts in the massive imperial bureaucratic machinery, appear in a number of the texts tasked with tracking the accounting of humans whose time has come to an end, with transitioning and processing them into the spirit realm, and meting out justice, punishment, and rewards. Many of the zhiguai presented depict humans, by turns, castigated, hunted, and killed, or saved, befriended, and seduced by these otherworldly beings. Often, humans blinded by limitations to perceive the larger matrix of the cosmos, fail to notice their mistreatment of insects, animal creatures, and spirits who cross their path, and truly evil humans cause great suffering to others by committing grave harm and violence or by behaving immorally. In these zhiguai, evil actions by humans are swiftly punished, and, interestingly, justice is equally applied across the barrier because incorporeal malevolent beings can be overcome and punished by an enlightened Buddhist or Daoist master.

Why is it a guilty pleasure to read? It is compelling and immersive. I was drawn into this world and lost track of my pandemic-mode self for a while. Ironically, it got me thinking about the inner workings of the virus, how we are processing the sheer numbers of people affected by the loss of loved ones due to covid-19, how many people died alone isolated from their anguished families, and how people must wonder about where their loved ones are and how they are doing now. It was weirdly compelling to read items 8 (9–12), 16 (16 and...