Ghost stories are not always scary. Rather than haunting terror, the tale of The Ghost and the Fisherman is one characterized by joy, friendship and kindness.
A version of the tale appeared in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liáozhāi Zhìyì), a collection of bizarre folktales and short stories published in 1740. The stories were compiled by the Qing-era writer and folklorist Pú Sōnglíng.
Versions of The Ghost and the Fisherman also spread—via the Chinese diaspora—to Taiwan, where it became popular among the islanders.
The folktale went something like this:
There once was a fisherman surnamed Xǔ. This Mr. Xǔ was a jolly fellow. He was kindhearted, gentle, a bit of an alcoholic but never forgot to share.
Each day, Xǔ settled himself down on the banks of a river, where he tossed his net and awaited the day’s catch. While he waited, Xǔ enjoyed the home-brew that he brought along and he never drank alone. Always, the fisherman offered a bit of his drink to the river. It just so happens that a water-spirit or ghost resided in the said river and consumed the offered drink. The ghost and the fisherman got along well and in return for the company and for the offered drink, the ghost always ensured that Xǔ did not return home with an empty net. The two were fast friends.
The water-spirit was originally a mortal man named Wáng Lìuláng. Wáng, like Xǔ, enjoyed a good home-brew. His soul became bound to the river when, one day, after long hours of drinking, the poor drunken man stumbled into the river and drowned. Since then, the ghost has haunted the river. His time in the river, however, was not to go on indefinitely. Eventually, a replacement—a “scapegoat”—soul will pass by and the ghost will then be allowed to be reborn as a mortal once again.
About six months after the ghost befriended the fisherman, the ghost informed his friend that the time will soon come when he will be allowed to be reborn. The two friends were sad that they will soon have to say goodbye but otherwise rejoiced in the ghost’s release from his bondage.
That evening, Xǔ prepared a feast by the riverside for his friend the ghost and the two enjoyed their little farewell party and celebration.
The following day, a young mother carrying a small child was walking along the banks of the river when she suddenly stumbled and fell into the water. The torrents ensured that she would not be able to make it back to shore, so the mother desperately pushed her child to the shallows before she herself began to sink beneath the surface.
This was the cue the ghost had been waiting for. It signified that he was free to be reborn—to start over—and the drowning mother was to be his replacement. The ghost, however, was a kindhearted soul. He took one look at the child crawling onto the banks of the river and, instead of forcing the young mother to take his place and be bound to the river, he pushed her out of the water and to the frightened child’s side.
The ghost’s actions were witnessed by the gods who were deeply impressed by his altruism. They decided to make him one of them.
And so, the ghost became a minor deity. He took charge of a small, quiet village as the local patron god and was free to invite his friend, the fisherman Xǔ to come and visit him. The two remained the closest of friends thereafter.