Manchu Folklore: Tales Told by a Bewitched Being

Manchu Folklore: Tales Told by a Bewitched Being

Hanung Kim, Harvard University

The genre of folklore is a constituent part of Manchu literature, but has attracted less scholarly attention than other types of literature, perhaps because the strong imprint of its oral transmission renders it less accessible than other types of writing.  Still, some work in the genre has drawn the interests of a broader audience.  One example is the Nišan saman-i bithe, which, because it sheds considerable light on the spiritual activities of Inner Asian peoples, has been carefully studied and translated into several different languages.

Another much less well-known work with a potentially broad appeal for Manjurists is the cycle of tales known as Sidi Kur or, in Chinese, Shiyu gushi  尸語故事. This series of weird didactic stories originated from a set of Indian legends called Vetālapañcaviṃśati, or “Twenty Five Tales of a Bewitched Spirit.” In the basic framework, the tales are told by a bewitched being whom the protagonist carries on his back.  The protagonist promises to keep silent, but at the end of each tale-journey, the protagonist breaks his promise by opening his mouth and exclaiming the wonder of each story.  The bewitched being then returns to the beginning, and the protagonist has to start the journey over again, with a new story. After a number of stories, the protagonist succeeds in maintaining his silence, and the cycle of the stories comes to an end. Even though the details of each tale and the number of tales told show greater or lesser diversity, it seems that the basic structure was kept intact throughout its transmission from India to Tibet, Mongolia, and, finally, to Manchuria.

radlov trans

To date, there have appeared two publications of the cycle in the Manchu language. The first is a Sibo-Manchu version of the tales that was transcribed by Russian scholar, Vasily Vasilievich Radlov, in the late 19th or early 20th century. This was published under the title Sidi Kur: A Sibe-Manchu Version of the ‘Bewitched Corpse’ Cycle as one of Aetas Manjurica series in 1994.[1] In addition to a facsimile of the original Cyrillic transcription manuscript by Radlov, this publication also includes a Russian translation of the tales, a glossary of the text, and a romanized transcription by Giovanni Stary. The cycle consists of an introduction and thirteen tales; its relation to another Manchu version, which will be discussed below, remains to be investigated.

The second version of the text is a manuscript preserved in the library of the Palace Museum in Beijing.[2] This cycle has 21 tales; an introduction with a short preface appears before the tales. Along with a facsimile of the original manuscript, the publication provides a romanized transcription and a Chinese translation, both by Ji Yonghai and his colleagues. According to Ji’s analysis, the wording of the manuscript indicates that the text was composed in the early Kangxi period, before the 1680s.[3] After a careful comparison with several different language versions, Ji also concluded that the course of transmission of the tales was from a Tibetan-Qinghai version to a Mongolian one to the Manchu version.[4]

It is noteworthy that, although the Chinese title refers to this as Shiyu gushi 尸語故事 (“Tales Told by a Corpse”), following the convention of the Tibetan and Mongolian versions, no corpse appears in the Manchu text itself. Even though the storylines clearly show a shared origin with other language versions, this Manchu version has a significant modification in that its storyteller is not a corpse but a medicine deity called Lingdan.[5] In this sense, it is nonsensical that it is called “The Tales Told by a Corpse”; the book’s cover illustration, reminiscent of a Hong-Kong style horror film, is even more bizarre, and has nothing to do with the tales themselves.

Among the several different language versions, the Tibetan versions are the most diverse and have the longest histories. Some of these Tibetan versions attributed authorship to a preeminent Indian Buddhist scholar of the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE, Nāgārjuna. However, because some Tibetan historical works note the existence of the work before the 2nd century CE, Nāgārjuna’s authorship should be regarded as problematic until further evidence is provided.[6] In any case, its reference to earlier Tibetan historical accounts indicates that the cycle of the tales was recognized as an old work of Tibetan literature already in the 14th-15th centuries. The question of authorship is perhaps moot, as the details have experienced so many variations in each individual version.

Finally, the issue of the relationship of these tales with Buddhism needs to be addressed. Some try to connect this set of tales to ghost tales manchuBuddhist culture on the basis of its origin from India and its prolonged existence in Tibet. However, the long history of their reception and preservation in Tibetan cultural areas and their transmission to Manchuria through Mongolia do not necessarily mean that the cycle of tales has anything to do with Buddhism. Only a systematic analysis of each tale and an understanding of its thematic implication will reveal their potential relationship to Buddhism. We can look forward to future studies of the folklore for this issue of tales’ connection to the Buddhist worldview.


[1] Elena Lebedeva, et al.,  Sidi kur: A Sibe-Manchu Version of the “Bewitched Corpse” Cycle, Aetas Manjurica 4 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1994).

[2] Ji Yonghai, et al., eds. and trans., Shiyu gushi: Manzu fochuan gushi ershiyi pian (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue, 2002).

[3] Ji Yonghai. “‘Shiyu gushi’ zai Manzu zhong de liuchuan,” Shaoshu minzu wenxue bijiao yanjiu (1993.4), p. 16.

[4] Ibid., p. 22.

[5] “…lingdan oktoi enduri erdeni be ganaha, enduri alaha julen, orin emu jergi ganaha orin emu julen sere (having fetched the precious medicine deity Lingdan, it is called 21 stories that fetched the deity 21 times).” Ji 2002, p. 223.

[6] Tibetans call the cycle “Ro drung (ro sgrung)” or  “Miro tsedrung (mi ro tshe sgrung),” both meaning “a story of a corpse.” The problem of its authorship is discussed in Chab spel Tshe brtan phun tshogs et al, Zangzu wenxueshi (Chengdu: Sichuan minzu, 1994), p. 97.


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