Yu Hua‘s (余华 1960-) short story ‘This story is for Willow’ (此文献给少女杨柳) from 1989 is about an extremely shy young man living in a town called Smoke. He prefers to go out at night, pacing the streets when no one else is around, but one night a young woman walks towards him and that experience changes his solitary life.
The young man cannot get rid of the presence left by the woman. She starts to manifest herself from his thoughts, she moves in with him, becomes his semi-invisible ‘ghost’ wife.
Talking to a stranger he calls ‘the traveller’, the young man explains his relationship with the girl thus: “One evening several days ago a girl came into my mind. In some way that is not at all clear, she spent the night with me. The next day when I woke up she did not leave, and I caught a glimpse of the look in her eyes. Her eyes had the same look that you are looking at me with now.”
The traveller in turn tells the story of how he once was blind, but had a cornea transplant from the eyes of a 17-year-old girl named Willow Yang, who had just died in a car crash. He came to Smoke to find her parents.
Later the young man himself is hit by a car, brought to a hospital in another city and has a cornea transplant from a 17-year-old girl called Willow Yang, who has died from cancer.
The young man travels back to Smoke and looks up Willow Yang’s father, who shows him her old room which has a drawing of a young man in it: “A long time ago, when Willow was still alive, one day she suddenly had thoughts of a young man, a stranger to her. She had never seen him before, but he appeared more and more and more distinctly in her imagination. This is the likeness she drew of him.”
Sitting with the traveller towards the end of the story, the young man recognizes him as the man in the drawing.
The two basic characters; the young man and the girl Willow, are repeated in different stories, which overlap each other so as to allow the young man to have a conversation with an offset version of himself; the traveller. Time is strangely and irregularly circular, revolving around the city of Smoke and the eyes of the dead girl, which binds together the ‘different’ characters.
It is interesting to note that in some stories of Chinese mythology, the ‘hun’ souls (魂) of the prematurely diseased are described as orphaned souls ‘guhun’ (孤魂) caught in the human world. They are to be pitied as well as feared, for they cannot join their ancestors before they find another soul to replace them, and so they seek to cause other people’s deaths.
The girl Willow Yang, has in one story line/time circle died in a car crash and in another from cancer, in both cases when she was only 17 when it happened. When her eyes are transplanted into the living young man/the traveller, the traditional ‘zhiguai’ (志怪 strange tale) takes on a contemporary dimension. She could be interpreted as a guhun, who causes the young man to be run over by a car just like her:
“[Guhun] devote themselves to leading others to their deaths: they draw the stroller towards the river’s edge, or cause automobile accidents on the very site of their own accidental death.” (Schipper, 1993: 38)
On the other hand Willow’s eyes give back the eyesight to those who have lost it and thus helps them to continue their life. This 1980s zhiguai illustrates how time can be experienced to move in unpredictable circles back and forth between the spheres of life and death, sometimes overlapping each other. And like all good zhiguai it revolves around the complex relationship between humans a ghost, which is never just a simple good vs. evil.
For more about the zhiguai tradition in contemporary fiction, including an analysis of different Yu Hua story, this article by Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg, University of Aarhus, is available online.
Schipper, Kristofer: The Taoist Body. Berkely: University of California Press, 1993.
Wang, Jing (ed): China’s Avantgarde Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.