The next book I’ll be covering is an intriguing Chinese language book that reportedly was a genre-busting internet sensation, Uncle Strange’s Hidden Souls (怪叔叔的“藏魂”). I don’t know where it was originally published, but the book is apparently a print version of that popular novel with a very minimalist cover of black with the title in white calligraphy. Like many of the Chinese language books I’ll be covering, I’m going to tag it in the more general category of China although this one is published in Hong Kong in traditional characters, merely because it’s hard to trace its original form or get definitive information about the author in many cases. This author uses the rather ironic, somewhat creepy pen name of Uncle Strange; I myself prefer something more elegant – my blogger pen name Xiansa (弦飒) evokes the wind blowing through the strings of a musical instrument. But you can’t have everything.
The book runs over 600 pages and has chapters with numbered subchapters, which is to be expected given the way internet novels are presented. Internet novels are very popular in East Asia, and in mainland China at least, the books are available all or in part for free. Of course some are available for purchase and download if you are in the country; those of us outside of their borders have to read the free sections only. Some internet novels can be accessed here at the popular Sina web portal:
Usually each subchapter runs a page or page and a half and ends with a bit of suspense to lure the reader to click on the next chapter section. That makes sense if it would be read on a computer screen, and even reading a little of this novel, it is apparent that is how it was meant to be viewed. This novel has no presence in English anywhere to my knowledge, so this series will necessarily contain a lot of spoilers. Copies of the novel in the original Chinese can be purchased here:
The main story of Hidden Souls centers on an antique shop whose proprietor is Yueyan Gu. The shop was founded by his grandfather, and his father carried on their trade, which includes appraising and repairing antiques. Each chapter describes his encounters with these special antiques.
Before I begin with the story, let me say a few words about naming conventions in Chinese, though some of it can also apply to other East Asian cultures to some degree. First, relationships between characters can be a bit ambiguous because it is customary to use words like “grandfather,” “aunt,” “brother” and other family relationship words even for strangers. Then when a person is known very well, they can have “lao” (old, 老) or “xiao” (little, 小) placed before their name. Families also can call their children by rank and last name, which is especially used for older family members or if the person is being referred to by outsiders.
The first chapter is fairly short, but it packs a wallop in building atmosphere and suspense. The story is told from the first person perspective. An old puppet is left with Yueyan at the shop, and it disturbs him from the start with its child-like appearance. Its workmanship appears to be that of the Qing Dynasty. He notices a crack in its forehead and determines that it was caused by improper storage rather than bugs, then he sets about to fix that damage and repair the puppet’s all-too-human hair. The hair puzzles him since normally puppets have fake hair like horse or cow tail, but he can’t identify it as any sort of animal hair whatsoever. It seems like genuine human hair.
He falls asleep in the room with the puppet after working on it for a while, and he hallucinates or dreams that it touches him then crawls toward him, calling out to him, “Daddy!” The perspective changes suddenly from first to third person as he tries to defend himself against the puppet and smashes it with a hammer. The perspective shifts again to show a husband and wife talking about a puppet the husband is making that isn’t going well. He must make the most beautiful puppet he can for a princess’ twelfth birthday since this princess is special to Emperor Qianlong’s favorite but childless concubine. The concubine has commissioned this puppet as a gift. The puppet maker’s 7 year-old-daughter Xin’er tries to comfort him in his anxiety over his work, and an evil thought crosses his mind. He asks her if she wants to help, and when she says yes, he tells her to close her eyes. Yueyan sees him pick up the hammer and can barely stand to watch what happens next. His heart aches as he hears her scream.
When he opens his eyes, he sees blood splattered on the wall and the puppet already on the work table. It is the same puppet he has been working on, only with eyes full of pain and suffering. The little girl’s mother comes into the room asking about the girl, who has gone missing. Understanding her husband’s evil plan, she calls him crazy, but he says he had to do it and their daughter will live on in the puppet.
When the vision ends, Yueyan hugs the puppet for a long time, trying to decide what to do with it. A few days later when his grandfather comes to visit, he discovers Yueyan has burned the puppet, and he berates Yueyan because it was very expensive. When he finishes scolding Yueyan, he gives him a family heirloom, a jade pendant on a red string. This sets up the next chapter.
Yueyan Gu starts to wear the jade pendant, which looks like the yin-yang symbol with the eight trigrams. He goes out to meet his best friend, Yanwu Luan, a dissolute, underworld (the text also uses the word jianghu – 江湖 – which is normally used to refer to somewhat shady lifestyle of traditional martial arts characters) sort of guy with a rough way of talking. Xiaowu, as he is called, is also from a family that deals in antiques, though they handle items that were stolen and fenced on the black market. Yueyan thinks Xiaowu is a murderer who understands murderers. They met when they were children and became loyal friends.
While they are carousing one night, Xiaowu convinces him to go on a trip in his car out to a villa in the mountains where there is an opportunity for them to make a lot of money. They arrive at night and meet the middle-aged butler, Old Huang, who leads them into the sitting room where they are shown some very valuable, rare Tang Dynasty porcelain. They discuss its price. Xiaowu says he wants to buy it, but during the discussion a man Yueyan knows is a Hong Kong businessman comes down the stairs, a man known as Elder Brother Lee. Normally confident and proud, on this night Elder Brother Lee is drunken and disheveled, and he offers to sell the porcelain to them for a ridiculously low price that Yueyan knows not to believe is legitimate. Then Elder Brother Lee tells them a strange story.
He says he bought the porcelain the year before and sent it to his father, and since then strange things have been happening. Five people have died. The manager said the deaths included a servant who fell out of a window she was cleaning, the cook, the chauffeur, his grandfather and a fifth person. Yueyan asks why Elder Brother Lee connects this to the porcelain, and Elder Brother Lee said he didn’t believe they were related at first but then it all seemed too coincidental. The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Second Brother Lee. Wearing designer clothes and carrying an apple, he laughs at his older brother. They discuss the death of the cook and the subsequent neglect of the mansion’s pantry. “Are we all going to die of hunger?” Second Brother Lee asks the butler. Then he mentions that the cook left Elder Brother Lee an inheritance. His comment is cut off by his older brother and the smell of something burning.
Second Brother Lee mentions that the string of deaths happened on the night of the full moon. Yueyan remembers tonight was a full moon, and he and Xiaowu accuse Elder Brother Lee of luring them there with the prospect of a cheap antique deal on purpose because he expected some disaster to happen! Elder Brother Lee doesn’t respond, but Second Brother Lee screams in terror as he sees the apple he has bitten into is rotten and full of worms. The mansion’s lights suddenly go dark. When the lights come back on, they are tinted red and make everyone look like they are covered in blood! Xiaowu decides he and Yueyan had better leave, but they find the door is locked and won’t open. They break out in a cold sweat as the mansion suddenly gets very warm, heating up like a stove. No one knows what is happening.
Xiaowu throws Yueyan to the floor just in time for a crystal chandelier to fall and shatter where he had been standing. The mansion is getting even hotter. They try the phones, but even Xiaowu’s iPhone doesn’t have a signal, so they can’t call for help. Second Brother Lee tries to open a window to escape, but it won’t open. The men decide to split up and look around the mansion for a way to escape but find that all of the windows and doors won’t open. Yueyan has difficulty breathing, but then the necklace he has been wearing glows green and shoots a rainbow of light across the room that breaks open one of the room’s columns. An object has been hidden within the column. When the lights suddenly return to normal, Yueyan can see it clearly. It is a painting of a legendary witch, Yansheng. Xiaowu says this witch was mentioned in the classic novel Dream of Red Mansions and that her magic was neither good nor evil. He thinks it is evidence that someone was trying to harm the Lee family. Old Huang had recently arranged for the mansion to be remodeled, and they ask him to explain.
Old Huang attacks Yueyan, pulling out a dagger, but Xiaowu quickly slices him with his own knife. Old Huang drops the knife and falls to the floor. They struggle for a time, and Old Huang screams out in pain as Xiaowu puts his knee in Old Huang’s back. Xiaowu looks around at the other men and offers to strike a deal with them. They advise the Lees to destroy the painting. When Yueyan returns home, Xiaowu calls him to tell him Old Huang came to and spilled the whole plot. The chapter ends with Yueyan marveling under the full moon at the necklace that saved them. He determines to go to see his grandfather to hear of its history as soon as possible.
The novel continues to focus on individual antiques and the adventures they precipitate in the next 19 chapters, which we will continue to look at in this series.
Part one of a six part series.