In the early days of my assignment in Urumqi, one afternoon an army clerk came to me with a brush and ink, along with a pile of papers that he requested I sign.
“What are these papers?” I asked.
“Passports,” he replied. “You see, most of the soldiers here are from far away. So, if they die, we have to ship their bodies back home for burial and funeral rites. Living people must pass through many border checkpoints when travelling. What you may not know though is that there are also spiritual checkpoints along the way for the souls of the dead. Thus, the dead must too be accompanied by the appropriate papers. If they don’t have them, their spirits are blocked at invisible checkpoints set up to prevent souls from getting lost or causing trouble. Surely where you come from you have documents like these.”
I said that we did not, and could barely contain my laughter when the clerk showed me a passport template and explained the details that must be present on every document. Their wax seal had to be black. So too the ink. Even more importantly, he said, was the following directive, written on each one:
To All Spirit Guards:
On this day of ___________ in __________, Master/Mistress __________________, age ______, died in __________ from ___________ . Do not hinder the transport of this body to the deceased’s hometown, or the spirit that hovers near it still. Furthermore, see to it that all possible aid is given the speedy arrival of this traveler.
Signed ______________, Presiding Official
Upon reading this directive and hearing the details about the ink and seal, it seemed immediately obvious to me that the spirit passports were one of those ploys that officials invent to collect envelopes of money, and that only the superstitiously gullible believe. So, after I dismissed the clerk, I sought out the general and strongly advised that he forbid the practice. Gullibility is not a trait that one wishes to encourage in one’s forces.
I hoped that was the end of the subject since I had more pressing matters to attend to. But it wasn’t.
A few days later, the clerk informed me with an air of urgency that reports were coming in that restless spirits were gathering near the western border of Urumqi: rustling through the grasses and the trees, wailing and frightening the horses and the pigs. People were upset not just at the spirits though but at me too—since my refusal to give them documents had caused the spirits to be turned away at border checkpoints.
This time, I was not amused by the subject of the passports, and I yelled at the clerk to bother me no more with ridiculous tales.
That particular clerk did not. However, to my surprise, in the following days several other people came to me. Reports were coming from all over the city now—not just from the border—about spirits running amok and causing trouble.
I racked my brains trying to figure out why all of Urumqi was succumbing to a plague of lie-telling. It made no sense. And then I heard it myself late one evening: the hollow crying of ghosts. The noise seemed to be coming from the other side of the wall around my estate.
Even then though, I resisted believing. I admitted that the sounds were real, yes. But I speculated that they weren’t coming from ghosts but living colleagues who were trying to trick me. Probably, I surmised, even the concept of the passports was part of an elaborate, practical joke.
But that theory was short-lived because the ghostly cries were suddenly just outside my window.
I looked out.
There was no human source attached to the wailing, disguised or otherwise. Just empty air over a patch of ground—lit up by moonlight as bright as a lightning flash.
Deeply disturbed, the next morning I sought out my friend Guan Cheng, a higher-up in the Department for Supervising the Conduct of Government Officials.
“Here’s my advice,” he said. “It was sensible of you to initially forbid passports because they do seem absurd. But since then the crying and complaints of stranded spirits have been heard by many witnesses, including yourself. Therefore, even if the spirit passports were originally a hoax cooked up by greedy officials, the spirits have become convinced that they need them. So, why not have a few drawn up and see if it makes a difference?”
I did as Guan Cheng proposed. I even had passports made for bodies that had previously been shipped out without them. The following night was peaceful.
Paper creates a great many things. Marriages, official positions, educational degrees, residency. All of these states of being require documents and indeed are not considered real or valid without them. In fact, civilizations owe their existence not just to physical things but to things created by the drawing up of papers. Because the people believe it so, these things are as real as physical artifacts. It is interesting that both spirits and documents direct the physical realm without themselves being physical.
One further incident I witnessed makes this connection evident as well. The eyes of my assistant, Song Jilu, suddenly rolled up one day while we were working, and he fainted. When he came to, he told me that he had fainted because he saw his mother’s spirit float into the room and gesture toward him. A few minutes later, a runner came in with a document that informed Song Jilu that his mother had died on her way to see him.
The rules that govern our world include many that are known but many more that are unknown or only half-understood. While people are eager to invent explanations for why the world is the way it is, at best their explanations can only account for the visible, physical world for that is part of the world sensible to human eyes. Years later, I wrote the following poem on this subject:
The seeded grass rustles beneath
The rustling clouds in the sky.
Who sets the boundaries
Between thoughts and things,
Between mountains and borders?
Ghosts and people travel where
Thoughts and papers allow.
This is a subject about which
A chapter should be added
To Han Yu’s “On the Ways of Spirits”
Note: This story was previously published in Passages North: https://www.passagesnorth.com/passagesnorthcom/2020/6/5/checkpoints-by-ji-yun