Dealing with demons


“When a female pheasant, without cause, enters the house, its name is Spirit-Traveler. In the house, there is invariably a violent death. Leave quickly.” Thus reads one instruction in “White Marsh’s Diagrams of Spectral Prodigies,” a 10th-century Chinese manuscript explaining how to deal with demons and strange occurrences around the typical elite household. The manuscript, discovered in 1900 at Dunhuang on the Silk Road, offers helpful hints from White Marsh, a popular medieval protector deity. “When a leather belt glows at night,” cautions another directive, “make sacrificial offerings of ale and dried meat slices.” The manuscript also lists demons’ names; in some cases all it takes to scare a demon away is to say its name a certain number of times.

Such a manuscript provides a window into the medieval Chinese world. In fact, argued East Asian Languages and Civilizations Professor Donald Harper in a Humanities Open House lecture this past Saturday, until you have studied the manuscripts, “you don’t really understand ancient and medieval Chinese culture.” Though it is unclear how many Chinese could read, paper was “certainly affordable in medieval times,” and many texts were posted in public places. Furthermore, this particular manuscript provides important “everyday” knowledge, he noted, “not about fantastic things you’d never expect to see” but incidents that could occur “right in the environment of your own home.” Harper also pointed to parallels between the 10th-century manuscript and one from the 4th century B.C. For 14 centuries these instructions on how to deal with life’s “hidden, occult, magical,” and inexplicable phenomena were preserved via the written word.

Yet “somewhere in the medieval period” the Chinese left the book tradition behind, Harper said, instead hanging portraits of protector spirits in their homes. In about the 9th century people began nailing White Marsh portraits, or “A Diagram of White Marsh,” over their doors, the earliest evidence of this shift. The portrait still survives in paintings and block prints in Japan, though not in China.

Hana Yoo ’07

Photo: Harper at his Humanities Open House lecture.

October 26, 2005