Liu Xiaoyong was a college student and an overweight otaku—not that the two contradicted one another.
His hometown was Goat City, which was also where his university was—it was five stations away from his house only. During the twenty or so years so far, he had barely travelled more than 300 km away from home.
Like most overweight otakus, his biggest hobby was watching anime, playing video games, and downloading x-rated OVA. Apparently, not only was he learning from his teachers at school, he found himself other " teachers 1 " during the vacations as well. As a result, he was well-versed in all sorts of pop-up ads and had often exhausted himself from all the "self-learning" activities...
Twenty years old and his romantic history remained blank. The only reason that he bought condoms was, well, out of curiosity.
"Sigh, there goes another short-lived life of mine. So boring…"
That night, Liu Xiaoyong slurped his super-spicy cup noodle and finished the last episode of a new anime released this season. For a moment there, he couldn't help but become lost in a deep reverie, which was a recurring experience of his—as soon as he fell in love with a heroine of an anime, it was time to say goodbye to her.
Shaking his head, he rose to his feet and tossed the empty cup into the bin himself, which was extremely rare for him. He then fetched a cart of box-packed lemon tea, sat back on his honorable seat, switched the screen back to bilibili.com 2 , and refreshed the homepage. What?
Completely out of the blue, the main images of the frontpage had been changed temporarily, replaced by one big picture. Written across the frontpage was a line of text: Congratulations on moving home— you know nothing of the anime world 3 !
The picture itself was a bearded middle-aged man dressed in a Taoist robe, who was cupping his hands at the camera.
What the hell?
Having nothing better to do, Liu Xiaoyong clicked the video open. It was rather a lengthy one—about 30 minutes—and the screen had been completely covered up by layers upon layers of barrages. He simply closed down the barrages and watched the contents of the video only, which was neither a spoof nor a gimmick, but was really showing a priest carrying out a ceremony.
It seemed to be taking place at the entrance of the new office building of the company. An altar had been set up, on top of which lay three animals and four fruits required as the sacrifice, together with three high-quality joss sticks. Over a dozen people had been divided into two groups, who were worshipping on either side on bended knees while the middle-aged man was gesticulating in the middle.
He probably had a mic on him, for his chanting was coming out loud and clear.
"The Grand Supreme spirit guards my soul and body so that I can cope with the forever changing situation. The splendid divine light shines on the highest heaven and deepest cave, discerns all five elements, and follows the Three Pure Ones. I hereby prostrate myself in front of the holy scripture of the precious Dao…"
Liu Xiaoyong watched the video with a gaping mouth. He did not know exactly what was going on, but guessed that the man was probably chanting a spell of house-cleansing and evil-dispelling. The scene looked too comical to take it seriously, yet everyone on screen looked too solemn and devoted to be considered a laughing matter 4 .
The barrage was filled with melodramatic comments.
"We should have some talisman and yellow paper emojis added to the barrage."
"LMAO. All they need now is to sacrifice a programmer to Heaven!"
"Suppress those autotune remix and the Great Dao will comply with Nature."
"I almost thought I read it wrong at the first glance…"
"Last time I saw something similar was in the Kingdom of Chechi, but there were three priests 5 …"
Hahaha! Liu Xiaoyong loved these people for their ridiculousness. After finding the right words, he quickly typed in his comment. "Abracadabra! SARFT, 6 let me pass!"
His interest in this particular video was pretty much finished after sending out the barrage. However, he darted one more casual look and was curious to see that the video was over half an hour long. It couldn't be all on a ceremony, could it?
Liu Xiaoyong dragged the timeline forward to about twenty minutes into the program. The location had been changed to the star lounge of the website's office, where the middle-aged man was being interviewed.
"Priest Chen, it was the fifteenth day of the seventh month on the traditional calendar and there is this saying 'the ghost gate opens at Zhongyuan Festival', so could you tell us if ghosts really exist in our world?"
"This is not a simple yes-or-no question. First of all, I think we should all realize that fear stems from unknown. When one has a better knowledge of a certain object, they can be much more at ease…"
The priest was handsome, graceful, and well-mannered, making words out of his mouth very convincing. "According to our Taoist concepts, ghosts do exist in this world, but they are nothing like the blue-faced, sharp-fanged, and malicious creatures depicted by TV dramas or fiction who could come and go without leaving a trace.
We Taoists believe that all things in this world are derived from Dao—you can think of this Dao as a form of Qi. Everything in this world is a produce of Qi, and so are the ghosts.
When someone dies, their Qi can no longer hold together and begins to dissipate. Some will disappear into Nature itself, some combines with the Qi of others, creating an opportunity for new lives, some transforms into animals or metal, stones, plants…"
He went on explaining the idea in plain words that were both easy to understand and showing an interesting new approach. For a while, the barrage thinned down—either most of the audience had left or they were enthralled by the words.
The host then asked, "We've all heard about someone being possessed by a ghost from the folklore, so can that really happen? If so, how can we protect ourselves against it?"
Liu Xiaoyong instantly pricked up his ears at the question, for just a couple of days ago, one of his classmates went mental after a seventh day ceremony for a grandmother.
It was a major topic of the chat group of his class for many days. It was said that the student was sent into a mental hospital and someone had concluded right then that a ghost was involved!
"Ghost-possessing is the term used by common folk. In our Taoist terms, it is known as 'a loss induced by Yang-deficiency, giving rise to the clashing Yin energy'. Ghosts are Yin energy formed by disintegrated vital essence. Some people are weak in body and mind, rendering them lacking in Yang energy. Naturally, these people are easily affected by Yin energy… therefore, I advice laymen and laywomen with such attributes to spend more times in the sun, improve their health both physically and mentally, as well as stay away from old and gloomy places and try not to touch ancient and unfamiliar objects, for those are all more likely to be infected with Yin energy and become harmful."
"I see. Thanks for clearing that up for us! While you were talking about improving our health, it suddenly occurred to me that a physical training program is being taught among middle and primary school students all over the country now. If our audience know someone who has been taught the program, you might want to have a go at it as well. It's such a simple but effective way. Now, Priest Chen, here is our last question. Would you talk about some relevant folk customs and some dos and don'ts in practicing them?" asked the host.
"Of course. Folk customs vary from place to place and the most common one is the seventh day ceremony. There is actually a very strict set of rules in practicing it…"
Liu Xiaoyong felt the hair on his back stand up as he listened on as if something was going to materialize out of the corner of the walls, from under the window-pane, or from under the bed. Even his legs under the table suddenly felt cold and began to shiver.
He clicked shut the video in a snap and scuffed to the living room.
His parents were watching news on the TV, which also happened to be a host interviewing a ministry official, who was all over the funereal tradition.
"Our country has a history of over five thousand years, during which time a lot of folk customs have been created, such as the occasions of marriages and funerals known to the common folks as the 'red-clad' and 'white-clad'. There are a lot of established practices involved, which have been passed down until today.
Zhongyuan Festival was just a couple of days ago and I happened to be on vacation, so I took my family to visit the cemetery. What I saw on my way there was, well, disconcerting… the government has been running campaigns against burning joss paper for many years. We have been promoting paying respect to our ancestors in a civilized way and some governments even suggested replacing the paper-burning with offering flowers, but the actual situation is far from satisfactory.
The cities are doing all right, but burning joss paper remains a common practice in the vast rural area. According to a survey run by our specialists, during the one-day period of Zhongyuan Festival this year, the level of PM2.5 in the capital city has soared to 15 times of its usual level.
Many may not be aware, but burning a stack of joss paper will produce about 1.5 kg of CO2, not to mention the SO2, nitrogen oxides, and PAHs, which are all major air pollutants.
Therefore, we have come up with a plan to gradually reduce the paper-burning practice at a reasonable pace, focusing mainly on the rural areas. We will be promoting civilized worshipping and funereal methods in times such as Qingming, Zhongyuan, Hanyi Festivals, or even for the seventh day ceremony…"
"The seventh day ceremony?" interjected the host.
"Yes. I think we all know that the joss paper is also burnt during this ceremony. Superstitious beliefs aside—we respect such tradition—we should recognize the imminent environmental crisis! We're not asking people to abandon a thousand-year-old tradition in one generation, but the idea is changing slowly. Maybe in a few generations, we will all be able to give up burning the paper and choose to show our respect with flowers…"
The sensitivity and keenness of an overweight otaku instantly told Liu Xiaoyong that something was not right. Taking out his phone, he refreshed his weibo page. As expected, ranked third among the most searched words was "seventh day ceremony"!
He tapped into the topic and saw that it was filled with all sorts of stuff from local seventh-day custom, to the bitter attack on superstitious belief, all the way to swearing on the validity of ghosts… it was a circus.
He blinked. These three platforms—the video website, weibo, and TV—had pretty much covered all types of audience out there and were now blasting out this information for a funeral tradition—the seventh day ceremony—alone?
This simply felt wrong, but he could not point out exactly where.
"Why, people here have stopped burning joss paper a long time ago, haven't they? I don't think many are doing the seventh day ceremony, either. The last time I attended one was over a decade ago for my grandmother. I can't recall one after that," his mother spoke all of a sudden just then.
"Yea, it must've been four or five years since I saw someone burning paper in the city. They still do it back in my hometown in the countryside, though," said his dad.
"No wonder the government is forbidding it. With the smog nowadays, god knows how much worse the PM 2.5 will get with all the burning," said his mum.
"Bullsh*t! What about the polluting factories? All they care about are the little things we common folk do. Driving a car, cooking, using the air-conditioner—is there anything we do that doesn't affect the air? Now they're onto burning paper. If there really are ghosts, the government will be the first one they possess!"
Liu Xiaoyong almost cried out. His old man pointed out the real reason that he had been racking his brain for: if there really were ghosts!
"Tsk, tsk. You've got to give it to those plotters. They just don't think the same way as we do."
Up on Phoenix Mountain, Gu Yu could not help but be amazed after reading through the news.
"It's simple but effective. The government would not admit it openly, but they're secretly letting the people speculate on their own. The government will then direct the public opinion towards the direction it wants. It's the same scheme all over again." Xiaozhai shook her head.
"Same scheme or not, the government is very good at it. With the background belief of the common folks, it's only natural that they're going to elaborate the story on their own…" Gu Yu chuckled and went on, "However advanced the modern technology is, plenty of people out there still believe in ghosts. Letting the imagination of the public fly is only the most effective move, but I think it's also only the beginning. There must be follow-up actions."
"Follow-ups?" Chao Kongtu, who had been sipping his tea quietly on the side, said suddenly, "I might have an idea."
"Who's your little bird?" Xiaojin asked curiously.
"I just received a message from my master, saying too many people have been possessed and they're extremely short of hands. I'm summoned to help them out. I will also be taking charge of a group and am expected to teach them some crash course in catching ghosts."
Chao Kongtu sounded quite unwilling as he added, "There's more. The authorities have invited a few Zhengyi descendants from HK Islands and Malaya, as well as that direct descendant of the Celestial Master Temple who has been living in exile abroad."
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were dazed a little at the news. What was that all about? Was the government trying to stir things up?
Xiaojin was as blunt as always as she asked in amazement, "Why were those despicable men invited? Paying to get their face slapped?"
"Overtly, they're here to help with catching ghosts. Actually… ha, it's nothing but a publicity stunt. People get to see the circus show and the government gets their propaganda spread."
Putting down his cup, Chao Kongtu smiled a cold smile.TL/N: Japanese female actresses in adult films are nicknamed "teachers" among Chinese netizens. ED/N: Seems like some Chinese site with anime, games, and such, to watch/play and comment on. TL/N: "you know nothing of the anime world" really is the slogan of that website. TL/N: the company (bilibili.com) has indeed invited a Taoist priest for a blessing ceremony when they moved to a new office building in 2017. TL/N: it refers to the Immortals of Tiger, Elk, and Antelope Power—three antagonists from the novel Journey to the West—who are three demons disguising themselves as Taoist magicians to deceive the ruler of the Kingdom of Chechi. The Monkey King then competes with them in a contest of magic powers and lures them into meeting their respective ends: Tiger is beheaded; Elk is disemboweled; Antelope is fried in boiling oil. TL/N: the State Administration of Radio Film and Television is where the examining and approving (or disapproving) of TV shows, movies, and other entertainment programs take place.